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Falling asleep during the movie invalidates your perspective

Falling asleep during the movie invalidates your perspectiveIt was Friday night. My girlfriend, Ashley, and I were lounging at home.

“Is it my turn to pick out a movie tonight?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Ashley said. “Is it? I thought you picked out the movie last Friday?”

“What movie did I pick out?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I fell asleep.”

“Then it’s still my turn,” I said. “It doesn’t count as a turn if one of us falls asleep.”

“I can’t help it,” Ashley said, yawning and cuddling up in her blanket. “It’s just that you pick such boring movies.”

“Yeah, you’re right. They’re so dull compared to binge-watching House Hunters.”

“I like House Hunters,” Ashley said. “It’s about real people doing real things.”

“Like complaining about granite countertops and outdated appliances? Yeah, talk about on-the-edge-of-your-seat entertainment.”

Ashley yawned again and turned onto her side. “Fine. You pick the movie, then. Try to find something interesting.”

I scrolled through Netflix. “Here’s one I think you’ll like. It’s an ’80s one with Sally Field and James Garner. It’s called Murphy’s Romance. Should I put it on?”

“What’s it about?”

“Well, I’m going to go on a limb and assume it’s a romance. You like romances, don’t you?”

“You mean the kind where the man does his own laundry and lets the woman pick out the movie on Friday night?” 

“I said romance, not fantasy. The plot has to be somewhat believable.” I hit the play button and settled on the couch beside Ashley. “C’mon, let’s give this one a shot.” 

“Fine.” Ashley stretched out, snuggling tighter in her blanket. 

Just as I expected, five minutes into the movie, Ashley dozed off. I watched the remainder by myself. 

When the movie ended, I turned off the TV. Ashley mumbled, stirring under her blanket.

“Well,” I said, smiling, “what did you think?”

Ashley moaned. “That was boring. You pick the worst movies.”

“But how would you know?” I said. “You were asleep!” 

“I don’t care,” she said, sitting straight. “It was still boring.”

“You’re not allowed to have an opinion if you’re asleep,” I said. “Being asleep invalidates your perspective!” 

“No,” Ashley said. “Being asleep is my perspective. Being asleep is how I express my distaste in your choices.” 

I frowned. “Don’t you think that’s a little passive-aggressive?” 

Ashley turned to her other side, wriggling in the blanket. “If you want to make it up to me, you’ll watch a season of House Hunters with me tomorrow on HGTV.” 

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Putting the pieces together 

puzzle

Since when did my Saturday nights come down to this?

It was Saturday evening, around eight. I was at my friend Ashley’s apartment. We were kneeling over the living-room coffee table, putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. We’d bought it about a week ago during a weekend shopping trip.

Now, after working on it for a few hours every evening since, we were almost done. Twenty or so pieces remained.

Ashley squinted an eye and scanned the puzzle, clenching a piece between her thumb and forefinger. Her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth, as if she were deep in thought. She turned the piece every which way, holding it above every possible gap.

Finally, she pushed the piece into a space near the middle, and it snapped into place with a satisfying “click.”

“Got it!” she said, pumping her fist. “That’s eight pieces for me so far, and none for you.”

“It’s not a competition!” I said, glaring. “We specifically bought the puzzle to unwind after work.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ashley’s nostrils flared. “Well, it was certainly a competition last night, when you were winning. You wouldn’t stop gloating.”

“That was different,” I said, dropping the piece I was holding and picking up another.

“Of course it was different,” Ashley said. “It was different because you were winning. And now that I’m ahead, you’re all sullen and pouty. You’re so immature.”

“Am not.” I wrenched out the piece Ashley had just snapped in and flicked it across the room. “Oops. I hate it when that happens.”

Ashley sucked in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.

An hour later, we were almost done. I snapped in a piece, leaving only one conspicuous, jigsaw-shaped gap.

“OK, hon,” I said, grinning. “It’s all on you now. You get to put in the last piece.”

Ashley frowned, scanning the table. “Where is it? I don’t see it!”

I craned my neck, looking around. “Is one missing? Did we lose it?”

“Oh.” Ashley crawled across the room. “Here it is. It’s over by the TV. I forgot you threw it when you had your little temper tantrum — because you were losing.”

I crossed my arms. “Like I said, it’s not a competition. At least not tonight, when you’re ahead.”

Ashley returned and snapped in the last piece. “There.”

We both knelt there together, looking at the finished product.

“Well, I said after a while, “that was underwhelming. Should we go to bed?”

“Yes, please,” Ashley said.

Later that night, around two in the morning, a huge crash jolted me awake. I sat straight up in bed, eyes wide open.

I immediately noticed that Ashley was missing, and that a light was shining down the hallway from the living room.

“Hey!” I called. “Are you OK?”

“I’m so upset!” Ashley called. “It was dark in here, and I knocked into the coffee table. Our beautiful puzzle is in a million pieces on the floor!”

I rubbed my eyes. “You mean a thousand pieces, Ash.”

“What’s that?” Ashley called. 

I sighed and shook my head. “Nothing.” 

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Hearts Flying Freely: a short story

Hearts Flying Freely Cover

1. 

I was watching a DVD one Sunday afternoon when Annabelle broke the news.

“Hey, Lyle,” she said, walking into the room. “My mom just e-mailed me. We’re invited to dinner next Saturday.”

“Oh, great,” I said, groaning.

She frowned. “That was real nice. What did my parents ever do to you?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s just … well, why Saturday? That’s half the weekend right there.”

“I know, but c’mon. We never see my parents. Well, at least you don’t. And besides, they like you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“They do, too.”

“Your parents think I’m a loser,” I said.

Annabelle shook her head. “Why would you say that?”

“Because the last time I saw your folks, your dad leaned over and whispered to your mother, ‘What a loser. I can’t believe Annabelle’s dating that guy.’”

“He never said that.”

“Yes, he did. I was sitting in the same room with them. He obviously didn’t care if I heard or not.”

“I’m sure he cared,” Annabelle said. “That’s probably why he whispered.”

“So you admit that your father called me a loser?”

Annabelle sighed. “Yeah, actually. It sounds like something he’d say.”

“Told you so.”

“So don’t go,” Annabelle said. “No one’s making you. I have to go because my sister’s coming. That’s what the dinner’s for. I could make up an excuse for you, if you want. I could say you’re constipated and can’t leave the house.”

“No, forget it — that only works once,” I said. “Never mind. I’ll come. It’s just a long ways, is all.”

“It’s only Fremont. It’s an hourlong drive, not a cross-country excursion. And I know they’d like to see you. It’s been awhile since we’ve done anything with them.”

“Didn’t we see them on the Fourth of July?”

Annabelle crossed her arms. “We did. It’s almost November.”

“Oh,” I said. “All right, then — I’ll go. But you got to drive.”

Annabelle sighed. “I don’t want you getting drunk in front of my folks.”

“I won’t get drunk. I’ll just get inebriated.”

“I’ve seen you when you’re inebriated. You lose all your willpower, and then you keep drinking till you become a staggering, cross-eyed drunk.”

“True,” I said. “Once I start something, I usually go all the way.”

“Please don’t drink too much. My parents think you’re respectable.”

“Why would they think that?”

“I have no idea. You must have done something to impress them.”

“I was probably drunk. I’m a lot more charming when I’m drunk.”

Annabelle closed her eyes. “Dinner’s at three, so we’d need to leave at two. Would that work?”

“Dinner’s at three?” I asked, my nose wrinkling. “Holy crap. Who eats that early? I can’t eat at three.”

“Why not? You eat every other hour of the day.”

“I don’t eat — I graze. It’s good for your metabolism.”

“You don’t graze — you snack. You eat potato chips and jerky and leftover Tuna Helper and whatever else is in that hellhole you call a kitchen.”

“What’s the difference? I eat when I’m hungry. And if I eat at three in the frickin’ afternoon, I guarantee I’ll be hungry by six.”

“Then we’ll get you a burger afterwards,” Annabelle said. “All right? I’ll even pay for it.”

“Mmm,” I said, licking my lips. “I love it when you talk dirty.”

“Fast food turns you on? You need help.”

“Actually, I need sex. And you’re just the person who can help me.”

“You can help yourself. So, is it settled? Will you go?”

“Yeah, I’ll go.” I yawned and switched off the TV. “What’s the occasion, anyway?”

“I told you: My sister’s coming to town.”

“Stop the presses. The one from Chicago?”

A frown. “She’s the only sister I’ve got.”

“Oh, yeah. Why’s she coming here?”

“Mom said she broke up with that Mark guy and is going through a rough spell. She’s going to stay with them for the week.”

“I don’t remember any Mark.”

“You met him on the Fourth, remember? You didn’t like him.”

I shrugged. “I don’t like anybody.”

“You said you tried talking to him and that he acted snobby. He wouldn’t condescend to speak to you.”

“Few people condescend to speak to me.”

“You’d know him if you saw him,” Annabelle said. “I didn’t like him either, to be honest. I thought he was stuck-up and conceited. I don’t know why my sister’s all distraught over it. Like I told my mom, she ought to be celebrating.”

“Why’d your sister date him in the first place?” I asked.

Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t know. My parents say I’m just like her. We don’t have the best taste in men.”

“Huh,” I said. I paused, looking at the floor.

Suddenly, I got it. I shot Annabelle a nasty look.

She smiled. “It took you awhile, didn’t it?”

“Just for that, I’m going to bring my rubber vomit. I can entertain your family after dinner.”

“C’mon, Lyle. My parents think you’re a cool guy. Don’t do anything to ruin it.”

“You mean by being myself?”

“Exactly. Be that charming, sophisticated guy who tells funny jokes — not the crude, crass imbecile who farts in close spaces.”

“OK,” I said, shrugging. “But like I said, I’ll require a hearty dose of alcohol. I hope you don’t mind toting my ass to Fremont.”

Annabelle grinned. “As long as it minds its manners, I’ll tote your ass anywhere.”

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Big-city sprawl is stealing small-town charm

city night lights

If you define “progress” by the city taking over, then yes, I guess we’re seeing tons of progress.

I like living in a small town. There are so many quirks that you don’t get to enjoy anywhere else.

Like the one time I went to a community theater to see a play. As everyone was settling into their seats, a man in a bathrobe walked in. I saw him and assumed he was part of the show.

Nope — he was part of the audience. He walked in along with everyone else and claimed his own seat. No explanation; just a man in a bathrobe. Everyone around him acted like everything was perfectly normal.

Giving directions is easy in a small town, because instead of street names, you can use landmarks. “Drive down yonder to the old convenience store and make a left at the ramshackle trailer with a dog tied to the front porch. You can’t miss it.”

I used to work in a small real-estate office, and people often asked me for directions.

“How do I get to this particular street?” a man asked me one time.

“Well,” I said, “you go down Main Street and turn left where the pizza place burned down 15 years ago. Go past the building that used to be the post office before the new one was built and drive until you see the vacant lot where Harry’s gas station once stood, before old Harry died and the building was bulldozed. To get to the street you’re looking for, turn right at the building that used to be a pawn shop back in the day. I’m not quite sure what it is now.”

The man glared. “Did I mention that I moved here last week? Your directions are absolutely worthless.”

Shopping can be a problem in a small town. When I was a kid, the nearest grocery store was in the next town over. All we had locally were two dinky convenience stores that reeked of cigarette smoke.

I remember begging my mom one time for a box of macaroni and cheese. She relented, and we brought it home to cook. When we opened the box, the macaroni was crawling with weevils. (I don’t recall if the box had a “use by” date, but given the infestation, it was safe to assume that it was past its prime.) 

Another time, at the other store, we picked out a carton of eggs. Opening the box, we saw that all the shells were yellow and hollow. It was as if someone had stuck a pin in each of them and sucked out all the contents.

“Durn,” said the storekeeper, when we showed him the carton. “I reckon you won’t be frying those with bacon come Sunday morning.” 

Life is less formal in a small town. Sitting in my favorite restaurant, there’s a view of a bar across the street. When dining one evening, I watched as a drunk staggered into the parking lot and took a gigantic leak in the parking lot. Not the most appetizing sight when you’re enjoying a savory meal.

I’ll tell you what, though: I’ll take small-town character over big-city class any day. The only problem with small towns is that they seem to be disappearing. Cities are stretching their grimy tentacles and smothering them in their wretched grasp. With every chain store that moves in, a fragment of local history gets torn away.

It makes you nostalgic for those days when you could wear a bathrobe to the community theater. 

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A lawn-care crew that carries in the groceries 

A sinister lawn-care customerDuring the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth.

We mostly tended to ritzy golf-course homes and the occasional shopping center. I recall one day early in my lawn-cutting career as we drove through a rich neighborhood and pulled to a stop in front of our next account. 

“Oh no,” Crew Leader Carl said, killing the engine. “Mrs. Beale is waiting for us.”

I looked and saw a little old lady standing on the sidewalk, her hands planted on her hips.

“I need your help,” she barked, as we all climbed out of the truck. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Crew Leader Carl said.

She pointed to the car parked in the open garage. The trunk was propped open.

“I just got back from the store,” Mrs. Beale said. “Carry all of the groceries into the house!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Crew Leader Carl said. 

The five us grabbed an armload of groceries and paraded into the house.

“Each of you kick off your shoes before coming in,” Mrs. Beale said. “You’re all filthy. I don’t want you tracking mud on my carpet.”

We all kicked off our boots in the washroom before marching through the house with our sacks.

“Put the refrigerated items away,” she said. “The other things go in the pantry. Hurry up – my ice cream’s melting.”

She glared at the guy next to me, whose name was Francisco. “Comprehend-o, Pedro?”

Francisco nodded and started unpacking bags. When her back was turned, he rolled his eyes at me.

When we were done, Mrs. Beale led us back out to the garage. While we were tying our boots, she barked, “I’m having a get-together on Saturday night. Carry all of this patio furniture to the backyard!” 

“Yes, ma’am,” Crew Leader Carl said. 

Francisco and I grabbed the end of a heavy table and lumbered out the side door. The other guys followed us carrying chairs and an umbrella.

“Set up the furniture,” Mrs. Beale barked when we got to the back patio. “Put the table over there. And I want those chairs by the house!”

We scurried around setting up the furniture. When we were done, Mrs. Beale put a finger to her lips and frowned. 

“I don’t like it,” she said. “Put the table over there, and the chairs over there.”

We rearranged the furniture over and over until she was satisfied.

“Thank you very much for your help,” she said.

Crew Leader Carl checked his watch. “Well, our half-hour’s up, Mrs. Beale. We have to go to our next account now.”

She balled her hands into fists. “But you didn’t even touch my yard! You lazy bastards! What kind of a maintenance crew are you?”

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The Do-Over: a short story

The Do-Over Cover

1.

The cafeteria smelled like greasy french fries. It always did, no matter what was being served. Today, the menu featured sliced turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Jimmy shuddered.

He approached the serving window, plastic tray in hand, and faced a tired-looking old lady wearing thick glasses and a tight hairnet.

“Hi there,” Jimmy said, setting his tray on the counter. “I’ll have the prime rib — an end cut, if you’ve got one — and a side order of salad.”

“Here’s your mashed potatoes.” The lady plopped a gooey mess on his tray.

“Thank you.” Jimmy moved down the line, collecting his gravy, a cupful of cranberry sauce and three thin pieces of deli-sliced turkey.

“Looks delicious,” he told the server.

“Don’t be a smart ass,” she said, glowering. 

Jimmy snatched a container of warm milk and made his way across the cafeteria, balancing his tray with one hand. He wormed through the rows of tables, ducking to avoid airborne food and stepping over discarded wrappers. Boisterous chatter filled the room, as well as the occasional whooping laugh. 

He was passing a table when a foot jutted out, blocking his path. Jimmy stepped over it and glared at its owner.

“Damn,” the guy said, grinning. He was a jock, and a senior. “You were supposed to trip.”

The jock had a girlfriend snuggling beside him. She started laughing, hanging onto her boyfriend’s arm. Jimmy looked at the floor and slunk away.

“Loser.” An empty soda can struck Jimmy’s back. Laughter erupted behind him. He kept his eyes on the floor and didn’t turn. 

His friend, Ronald, was sitting at their usual table in the farthest corner, next to the performance stage. It was the rejects’ table, reserved for nerds from all classes. Freshmen and sophomore nerds occupied one end, and junior and senior nerds occupied the other.

Ronald and Jimmy were the only nerds who represented the sophomore class.

“I guess it’s something to be proud of, huh?” Jimmy had asked once. “I mean, us being the only nerds in our class?”

“No, it isn’t,” Ronald had said. 

Jimmy dropped his tray on the table and sat across from his friend. 

“What’s up?” Ronald asked.

“I told you I hate school, right?”

“At least three times today,” Ronald said, shoveling potatoes into his mouth. 

“Well, I’ll say it again: I hate school.” Jimmy started chewing on a roll.

“Roughly two and a half years to go,” Ronald said. “But then again, who’s counting?”

“Me. I’ve been carving tally marks in my locker.”

Ronald smiled. “I think of high school in terms of The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman’s character spent 40 years behind bars. So in high-school terms, one year for us equals 10 years for Morgan Freeman. And it was at his halfway point — his 20-year anniversary — when he met Tim Robbins’s character. His life got better after that. So, because we’re at our halfway point, maybe our lives will get better, too.”

Jimmy stared at his friend, frowning. “You watch way too many movies.”

“You know who directed The Shawshank Redemption?” Ronald asked. 

“Steven Speilberg?”

“No. Not even close. Frank Darabont.”

“Huh — OK. I know Stephen King wrote the book.”

“It wasn’t a book; it was a short story. It was part of a collection titled Different Seasons, which also featured ‘Apt Pupil.’ It also included ‘The Body,’ which was made into the movie Stand By Me.”

Jimmy closed his eyes and sighed.

“Stephen King also wrote The Green Mile,” Ronald said. “You know who directed that?”

“No clue.”

“C’mon, man. This should be easy.”

“Steven Speilberg?”

Ronald snorted. “Dude, now you’re being an idiot. Frank Darabont. He did both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.”

“All right. If you say so.”

“If you don’t believe me, check iMDB.”

“That’s all right — I’ll take your word for it.”

Ronald smiled, tapping the side of his forehead. “I know these things, my friend.”

“I know you do. You need to go on Jeopardy! and make us some money.”

“Nah.” Ronald turned to his plate and spooned some mashed potatoes. “They’re not big on pop culture. Most of their questions focus on foreign affairs.”

“Foreign affairs is an important topic.”

“I guess it is, if you’re a foreigner. I couldn’t care less.”

“Yeah.” Jimmy cut a piece of turkey and chewed it. His eyes bulged. 

“The turkey tastes funny, doesn’t it?” Ronald asked.

“It tastes like ass.”

“You’d be the expert around here, Jimmy.”

“It tastes the way the locker room smells,” Jimmy said. “Like ass.”

“The locker rooms doesn’t smell like ass. It smells like feet.”

A freshman sitting nearby looked over and frowned. 

“It’s both,” Jimmy said. “It’s a mixture of ass and feet.”

“Dude!” the freshman said, pointing to his tray. “I’m trying to eat here!”

“Good luck with that,” Jimmy said, pushing his food aside. “This stuff’s nasty.”

Ronald glared at the freshman. “Mind your own business, dude.”

The freshman turned to his tray, shaking his head.

Ronald looked at Jimmy. “Can you believe that guy? These freshmen have no respect.”

“Sure they do,” Jimmy said. “They just don’t respect us. He wouldn’t talk that way to Bruce Jenkins.”

“I can hear you,” the freshman said, glaring. 

Ronald turned. “Hey, Freshman. I’ll give you five bucks if you go up to Bruce Jenkins and tell him he’s a dickwad to his face.”

The freshman’s eyes widened. “Bruce Jenkins? The football player? No way, man! He’d kick my ass!”

“He’s a sophomore, just like us,” Ronald said. “How come you’re not afraid of us kicking your ass?”

“Ah, c’mon.” The freshman snorted. “There’s no class distinction among nerds. We got to stick together.”

Jimmy shrugged. “He’s got a point.”

“Besides,” the freshman continued, “we’re the intellectual elite. We fight with our minds, not with our fists.”

Ronald grinned. “We’ll see about that. Name the guy who directed Back to the Future.”

“Steven Speilberg,” Jimmy said.

Ronald frowned. “I wasn’t asking you.”

The freshman grinned. “Robert Zemeckis. Steven Speilberg produced it.”

“Hey, he’s good!” Ronald said, turning to Jimmy.

“Do you know who co-wrote Back to the Future?” the freshman asked.

“Easy,” Ronald said. “Bob Gale.”

“And the battle of wits rages on,” Jimmy said.

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Ode to a bygone love

I’m wondering where you are tonight.

I’ll tell you where I am. I’m in a smelly cab traveling through downtown, surrounded by a city that’s blinding me with neon and swallowing me whole. I’m leaning against the blotchy, fog-coated window, which feels like a sheet of ice against my flushed face and fevered cheeks. The passing storefronts blur in a swirl of color, with bright-lit logos blaring their brands and straining to claim a piece of the late-night desert skyline.

It’s as if everyone’s reaching for a bittersweet slice of American pie — that delectable dessert all encrusted with cash and oozing with gold. Some of us feast on the favorable filling, while others of us loathsomely gnaw on the crumbs.

Are you out there, I wonder … ensconced in your apartment with the shades drawn and TV glowing … sipping a drink to close out the week, and to shut yourself off from the world?

Or are you somewhere else out there, not alone, but in the city … sharing drinks with a stranger at the far end of a bar, smiling at his lines and shivering — quivering — as he traces his finger along your arm? Are you moving on with your life — diving in, plunging forward — putting the past behind you and filing away the snapshots of our time together … those everyday moments that flicker away into obscurity, leaving only wisps of memory to cling to and cherish — moments stained in sepia from the constant slippage of time?

Wherever you are, I hope you’re happy. I hope you’re vibrant and lively, savoring the moment and finding something sacred to dedicate yourself to in this chaotic maelstrom of wistful existence. You always used to want something more — something deeper and more meaningful; something to lend credibility to the idea that there’s a purpose for us — a purpose for all of us — a purpose beyond the confining, mundane realm of reality and the banal, everyday struggle to survive.

I once felt a magic with you, but the enchantment is gone. You made me feel dazzled and dizzy … awestruck and giddy … but the sparkle fizzled out, and the glow faded away. When you left, all your warmth went with you, drifting away like a pleasurable scent … tapering to nothing like a dying candle’s flame.

What did it all mean, our being together? What was the takeaway? What did it boil down to? Are we only snapshots in each other’s existence — mere stepping stones to better paths and possibilities? There has to be a meaning behind it all: some nugget of knowledge we can savor and embrace.

Or was our relationship more like a beautiful poem — wandering and lyrical and dripping with imagery, but in the end merely an artistic diversion from the tedium of reality and the meaningless of existence?

I’d like to think it all meant something more. Love’s not just a sideshow to the main attraction, or a way for us to piddle away the time. Love in itself is a reason for living— a state of being to aspire to. It creates a rushing, lilting harmony against the sterile, static silence — silence that permeates the hollow, gray, eggshell-like foundation upon which this punishing, sinister world resides.

I know I have to put you behind me, but there’s a part of me that can’t let go. People are right when they say I’m stuck in the past. And they’re right that I’m too afraid to move on.

I’m afraid if I let you go, your memory will fade from my mind, like a flickering imprint of a bright light when you close your eyes … or the lingering warmth of a stranger’s touch when they brush their fingers across your back.

You were always my center — the force that kept me grounded. And you were always my compass — the pointer that gave me poise. I can’t just relegate you to my mind’s deep recesses to rot away and wither. If I do, my memories will mist over with haze, and the light of your love will grow dim. That vibrant, loving, whimsical person I used to hold and cherish will wane into a caricature of who she used to be — a fragment of her former self … and all she meant to me.

I can’t just file you away like a forgotten photo. Your image is too lifelike, too real. A photo can preserve a memory, and a memory can preserve a moment, but some moments demand more than lifeless, static preservation. Some moments need to be relived, and re-experienced — especially in our darkest, dreariest hours — because they not only enriched our lives, but because they gave our lives meaning, and depth.

But then again, maybe it was all just a fling. Then again, maybe we weren’t meant to be. Maybe you’re out there, right now, skipping through the present and filling your heart with someone new.

Did any of it mean to you what it all meant to me? Or did I only glean more from the experience because I was so needy? Are you the strong one, putting it all behind you and closing the chapter on our love? Did I crumble more completely because my heart and resolve were so fragile?

I think it’s better to feel too much than too little. And I can’t just sweep it all away as if you were only a footnote to my existence. The emotions are still too real — too vivid and intense.

I see you in my subconscious, in my peripheral vision. I’ll spot you to my side, standing framed in an open doorway … but when I turn your image dissolves like a sunbeam smothered in shadow … and once again I’ll be all alone, ensnared in a dark apartment, plagued by a haunted heart and a troubled head that’s rattling with ghosts.

In those still, pre-dawn hours, when the world’s a pale glow and the deep-sleep dreams are dwindling, I’ll feel the warmth of your palm pressing into my chest, and I’ll stir and reach out for you … but there’s nothing there but bunched-up sheets, and a gaping space where you used to be.

I’ll lie there, then, wide awake with receding dreams, reality pouring in like molten steel to remind me that you’re gone.

Back in the cab, the night feels raw and throbbing, like an open wound that just won’t heal. I’m trapped in here behind a steel cage, barreling down a city street on a ride I can’t control.

If I press my hand against the glass, I almost can feel your breathing, your heartbeat. Or maybe that’s the city’s pulse — its erratic, harried thumping … alive and real and palpable, with neon searing into my senses to offer simulated life.

Are you out there, I wonder? And if you are, are you thinking of me? We once forged a foundation of tenderness and affection … but has that foundation succumbed to decay? Are we severed, separate, disparate, divergent … or are the lines of communication still sound?

Gazing at the city, my thoughts all drift to you. Can you hear the words I’m thinking? Can you feel the pain I bear? Can we correspond across this psychic thread … or are my pleas just tumbling into a void?

I opened up to you, and I told you where I am. I only wish you could have heard me, so you could tell me where you are.

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Smoldering ashes of youthful ambition

I gazed out the taxi-cab window, staring with hypnotized eyes at the sparkling lights of downtown. Life, vitality … excitement. And yet I felt no part of it. I felt empty, barren … like the acres of desert wasteland surrounding the city. That’s the problem with this city: I never feel whole. I always feel as if the desert, its emptiness, is creeping past the city limits, reclaiming the cement and concrete and casinos, crumbling the foundations that keep this whole shimmering palace standing. Maybe someday it will all collapse, and the tourists, the drunks, the losers … all of them will come crawling from beneath the rubble, dazzled by the brilliant sunlight — parched by the dry, desert air — and wonder where in the world their lives have disappeared to.

There’s a nervous tension in the air tonight, fraught with despair and uncertainty. Or maybe it’s inside of me — I don’t know. It’s a tense, harried energy, like a current surging through a severed cable, snapping and sparking with nowhere to go.

I think back to fifteen years ago … of fun-filled Friday nights, conversations with strangers, plastic cups sloshing with beer, the neon-filled nightclubs. The memories are aged and hazy, cobwebbed from neglect and fogged over by experience … but the images are there, still and real. Mired in time, they glisten through reminiscence.

I can see them, still: old friends from college, preserved in adolescence. Rowdy, ragtag groups ushering in diversion and shrugging off adulthood … embraced and encased in that snug cocoon of youth … that fragile, transitory covering that eventually fades away— flaking off like skin, crumbling away like a shell — bringing the horizon into focus, the future into the present … narrowing paths and possibilities and forging granite realities from the shapeless, wanderlust, cotton-like clouds of infinite aspirations.

Life. Vitality. Excitement.

And the smoldering ashes of youthful ambition.

We were on the verge of something big back then. Our dreams blurred like billboards of twinkling neon, but the visions were bright. Standing on the steps of my dormitory, I could feel it: a rushing, sweeping tide carrying us to the precipice of destiny — to a boundless, endless landscape of opportunity, and chances.

But dreams can turn to dust, and the brightest of visions can dim. Beckoning horizons can be replaced by drab, concrete walls — lifeless and windowless and impossible to scale — blocking off the distance, blotting out the light … and shutting in the soul while closing in from all sides.

I remember walking downtown with friends on a cold autumn night, lose and springy, a noticeable bounce to my step … and a homeless man grabbing my hand and saying “You’re Clark Kent, man! You’re Superman!” And he wouldn’t let go.

And the raging lights bathed the streets with a surreal sheen, pulsing to the rhythm of the city and the trembler of traffic, casting a glamorous gleam on the scenes below. Out on the town and unencumbered by age, we felt like we were on the cusp of something wonderful and magical — something shared in the collective heart of our own generation. Our toes inched across the starting line, waiting for the sound of the starting gun to spring us forward — to run, baby, run … galloping like gazelles toward adventures unknown.

Only somewhere along the way, we lost our momentum. Somewhere along the way, it all fell apart. The levity of dream gave way to the tedium of truth … and the luster of youth gave way to the specter of age.

Later that night, I met a woman in a bar. She was a college senior, like me. Nestled in a corner in a standing-room crowd, we had to shout to be heard above the jukebox jumble.

Animated by alcohol, the conversation drifted to post-graduation goals. Her dream, she said, was to travel to Europe: to saturate her senses with the sights, sounds and smells of faraway lands. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she told me, grinning. An adventure.

Yet she didn’t have the money, and she didn’t have a plan. The dream was there, alive and real, but the means were not. It was a “someday” thing; a dream to be realized if only life would allow.

The bar was smoky, and dim … and she and I moved together, slowly, leaning closer and closer … but then the door suddenly flew open, letting in a late-evening chill. The icy breath draped over us, sweeping away the heat … and for whatever reason the passion dissipated, breaking the spell and sucking the warmth that had enveloped us like wool.

And I realize now, that chill, that coldness — that icy sting that had sucked away all the warmth — that was the same feeling I felt when I realized that my tomorrows were limited, that my future was finite.

It was the feeling you feel when you truly grow up; when you emerge from your youthful cocoon into the world of adulthood.

The day your dreams dissipate, and fade.

I lost sight of that woman in the bar — at some point she pulled away and retreated into the din. I didn’t follow her or call her back. And I wonder sometimes if she ever made it to Europe, crossing the expansive seas on a cross-continental flight, armed with only a suitcase and a camera and a blank mental canvas to soak in all the scenery — to saturate her senses with Europe’s sights, sounds and smells.

Or I wonder if she’s like me, like so many others in our generation: adrift with no direction — with no compass or vision. Maybe she’s trapped in a job that she hates, or maybe she doesn’t have a job at all.

I wonder if maybe she gave up on that trip to Europe, realizing with despair that it could never come true. Maybe the real world closed in, curling its gnarled, icy fingers: fingers that can pry into daydreams, to stir up the doubts … fingers that can shred away fantasies, to pull lovers apart.

Ah, nebulous memories tonight as this taxi flees down the freeway. It’s Friday night, but there’s no excitement in the air, no bounce to my step. Something’s changed these past fifteen years. The lights of downtown are as bright now as they were then, but their neon glow seems somehow muted. No longer do they seem surreal and gleamy; now they’re just carnival-like, and gaudy.

If I were strolling downtown right now, at this very moment, I doubt the homeless man would be there. And I doubt he would grab my hand and call me Clark Kent.

If he was there, maybe he’d miss me as I passed, because I’d look the same as all the others on the street — all the weary, jaded adults who’ve forgotten how to dream — because like them I’d have no whimsical sense of purpose … and no supernatural aura.

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Iceholes: A Saga of Five Fishermen

Iceholes: A Saga of Five FishermenI was watching TV and drinking beer when the phone rang.

I picked up the receiver. “Put me on your ‘Do Not Call’ list. Thanks.”

“Colane?” 

“Yeah?” I said. 

“Colane, it’s Dave.” 

“Dave?” I said. “Dave’s not here, man.” 

“Dude,” he said, laughing, “I was calling to see if you still wanted to go ice fishing. You never told me.” 

“Ice fishing?” 

“Yeah, don’t you remember? I asked you at Irene’s party.” 

“Irene’s party?” 

“Don’t tell me you can’t remember Irene’s party!” 

“Was I invited?” 

“Of course you weren’t invited. That didn’t stop you from showing up, though, and drinking all their booze.” 

“And you asked me to go ice fishing?” 

“Dude,” Dave said, “are you drunk? You’re acting stupid.” 

“Acting?” 

“Seriously, man, are you coming or not? We’re leaving next Friday.” 

“Where you going?” 

“To Wild Horse Reservoir, near Elko. We’re leaving Friday and coming home Monday. My cousin, Bubba, is driving us. He has a camper.” 

“You have a cousin named Bubba?” 

“I was adopted,” Dave said. “So what do you think, man? Can you swing the time? Brent’s on board — he said he’s coming.” 

“Well, I don’t know,” I said, looking at the ceiling. “I’m not much of a fisherman. Come to think of it, I’m not much of a man, either.” 

“We don’t just fish, you know. There’s a lot of drinking involved.” 

“Really?” I asked. 

“Absolutely. Drinking and fishing go together like … like tits on a boar, I guess.” 

My forehead wrinkled. “Huh?” 

“Never mind; I’ve been drinking. Anyway, you coming?” 

“Well, if you’re going to twist my arm … then yeah, I’ll go.” 

“Seriously? I wasn’t twisting that hard.” 

“Well, it would be nice to get out of town for a while. I’d hate to deprive Reno of my presence, but the citizens will just have to bear it.” 

“Awesome, man! That’s great,” Dave said. “There’s a lot of preparing to do. You need to get some warm clothes and some snow boots. You can borrow my fishing gear; I have lots of poles. You’ll also need a fishing license.” 

“Fishing license?” I said. “I don’t know much about fishing. Is there a test involved?” 

Dave laughed. “No, no test. You just need money.” 

“I don’t have much of that, either.” 

“You can get a license at any drug store. It won’t cost much. And remember: We’ll be meeting at Bubba’s at five on Friday morning. I’ll e-mail you directions.” 

“Five?” I said. “You got to be kidding.”

“It’s a long drive. And the sooner we get there, the sooner we can drink.”

“I’ll set the alarm,” I said.

*** 

It was still pitch-black when I arrived at Bubba’s house in Fernley. A large diesel pickup and a towable camper were parked out front. I parked in the driveway, which was crowded with cars. The garage door was open, and I saw three figures silhouetted against the darkness. I climbed out of my car, coffee mug in hand. 

“Hey, there’s Colane,” I heard Dave say. “How’s it going there, man?”

I walked into the garage. “I’m frickin’ tired. I’m not used to this getting-up-early bullshit.” 

Dave and Brent were standing beside a tall, chubby guy who had thick stubble and a missing front tooth. He was wearing a camouflage suit. 

“Colane, this is my cousin, Bubba,” Dave said.

“Nice to meet you,” Bubba said, offering his hand. 

I shook it. “Likewise.” 

I looked around the garage, which was packed with a boat, four-wheelers and a large hunting-cap collection mounted on the wall. Bubba himself was standing over a table covered with tangled fishing line and a cluttered tackle box. 

“Nice place you got here,” I said. 

“Thanks,” Bubba said. “Hey, what did you say your name was?” 

“Colane.” 

“Colane, huh? All right, check this out.” Bubba drew in a deep breath, then belched out my name: “Cooooolllllaaaaannnnneeeeee!”

He grinned. “Cool, huh?”

I turned to Dave. “How long’s that drive, again?” 

“Here,” Brent said, reaching into an ice chest and thrusting me a beer. “Have one of these. It’s too early for coffee.” 

I accepted the Heineken he gave me. “We’re drinking already?” 

“Bubba’s not,” Dave said. “He’s got to drive. But check this out.” He lifted a hefty jug off the table and handed it to me. Liquid sloshed inside. 

“What is it?” I asked.

“Read the inscription.”

I did. The bottle said “Microbe Killer.” 

I handed the bottle back. “Where did you get that?” 

“It’s been in the family for ages, since the 1880s, I think.” Dave uncorked the bottle and took a long swallow. “It’s got 7UP, whiskey and orange juice inside. It kills microbes.” 

“Maybe later,” I said, opening my Heineken. “I usually don’t hit the hard stuff until 10 a.m.” 

“We better get on the road,” Bubba said. “You guys can put your shit in the camper. There should be plenty of room for all of us to sleep.” 

My eyes widened. “We’re sleeping in the camper?”

“Well, yeah,” Dave said. “There aren’t many four-star hotels up there, Colane.” 

“Our uncle has a cabin outside of Elko,” Bubba said. “We can park there. You can sleep in the house, if you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The whole place smells like dog shit.” 

“Gross,” I said. “He’s got an old, musty house, or something?” 

“Not really,” Bubba said. “The problem is he lets his dogs shit inside.” 

“The camper will be fine,” Brent said. 

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A ‘vintage’ love story

“Write me a sonnet,” Ashley said.

I rolled over. My eyes felt sandy with sleep. “What did you say?”

“A sonnet,” she said. “Write me one. Please.”

I propped my head with my elbow, blinking. “Hon, what are you talking about? It’s one in the morning.”

“You told me you’d write me a sonnet.”

“Yeah, but not right now. Wait a minute” — I gave her a sharp look — “when did I say that?”

“A couple of nights ago, at dinner. You promised.”

“I did?”

“Don’t you remember?” she said, brushing her foot against my leg. “You were telling me how much you loved me. You said you’d write a sonnet for me as a … as a token of your love.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, frowning. “That doesn’t sound like me.”

“Well, you said it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t remember. I seriously don’t. I’m not saying I didn’t say it. I’m just saying I don’t remember. I could have been tired, or maybe it was the night I had too much wine with dinner. I don’t know.”

“Whatever.” Ashley burrowed deeper in the blankets.

“C’mon,” I said. “Why do you want a sonnet this time of night, anyway? It’s late; I’m too groggy to write anything.”

She turned away and sighed. “I thought it’d be romantic, that’s all. We’re always stuck in the same routine. Don’t you ever want to stop to savor your life, to drink it all in?”

“Depends on what I’m drinking.”

She snorted. “Forget it. You’re not taking me seriously.”

“Oh, c’mon, Ashley,” I said.

“Forget it. Go to bed. Sorry I woke you.” She turned her pillow to the cool side and wiggled away.

I sighed and rolled onto my back. I lay with a hand behind my head.

“I can’t write in the middle of the night,” I said.

No answer. Only Ashley’s soft breathing.

I stared into the darkness, thinking. Somewhere from the murkiness, a memory emerged, faint but real: Me, three nights ago, sitting at the dining-room table, while Ashley cleared the dishes. She stood over the garbage and scraped the plates.

I poured some wine, emptying the bottle. My glass sloshed. I took a long sip, leaning back in my rickety wooden chair.

The lights were low over the table; the bulbs, dim. The kitchen, however, was flooded in light. I sat in the dim shadows, sipping my wine. I looked at Ashley, drenched in the bright, florescent light. She stood with her arms in the sink, rinsing the dishes. She wore a maroon-colored blouse, which clung to her skin. Her loose jeans, cinched at the waist with a black belt, hugged her bosom and showed off her figure. Her hair, pulled back in haphazard strands, seemed to glisten beneath the light.

I took a sip of wine. “You’re so beautiful.”

Ashley looked over and turned off the sink. “Sorry? The water was running.”

“I said you’re beautiful.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right.” She turned the water back on and picked up her dishrag.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I’ve never seen you look so pretty.”

Can’t hear you, she mouthed, pointing to the sink and smiling.

I sipped my wine.

“You were saying?” she said, turning off the water. She opened the dishwasher and started loading it.

“You’re so awesome. You’re beautiful. You really are.”

“And you’re drunk. Did you polish off the wine?”

“I’m not drunk,” I said, sipping from my glass.

“The bottle’s empty.” She stacked the dishes in the washer, lining the plates alongside each other and putting the silverware in the plastic compartment.

Panther-like, I slipped behind her and put my hands on her waist. She jumped.

“Hey,” she said, without turning. “You almost made me drop this.” She placed a glass in the washer.

I ran my hands up her body.

“Stop it,” she said, shaking me off. She moved to the counter and started wrapping the leftovers in foil.

“You know what I’m going to do?” I asked, stepping behind her.

“Take out the garbage?”

“No. Well, maybe in a bit. But first, I’m going to write a sonnet … for you.”

“That’s nice. You’re drunk.” She wrenched open the fridge and put the leftovers away. “I knew the wine would put you over. You’re used to beer.”

“I want to tell you how much I really care about you,” I said. “I’m not good saying things out loud. But maybe if I write a sonnet, you’ll know.”

“OK, then. Write me a sonnet.”

I returned to the table, picked up my glass with a swoop. “You know what I’ll say?”

She closed her eyes, sighing. “What?”

I gulped some wine. “Well, I don’t know, yet. But I want it to be special. What rhymes with Ashley? Flashy, maybe? Trashy? No, no — definitely not trashy. Forget I said that.”

“Can you take the garbage out, please?” she asked. “It’s overflowing.”

“All right.” I polished off the remainder of my wine and set the glass on the counter.

“You could put that in the dishwasher,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Your glass. It doesn’t belong on the counter. It belongs in the dishwasher.”

“Oh.” I picked up the glass. “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry,” she said. “It’s just … well, it needs to go in the dishwasher, that’s all.”

“OK.” I put the glass away and yanked the garbage sack from the container.

I tied it up and walked to the backyard garbage bin, which stood against the rickety fence. A strong, frigid wind blew, chilling me. I tossed the garbage and returned to the house.

Ashley was doing something in the kitchen. I went to the living room and sunk into the couch. I fumbled for my iPhone, which was buried in my pocket. I wanted to listen to music: something slow, and moving.

I leaned back and closed my eyes, the earbuds in my ears. Someone tapped my shoulder. I looked up to see Ashley standing beside me.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m making coffee. You want some?”

I turned down the music. “Sure. Decaf, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Thanks.” I put my earbuds back in.

“Hey,” she said, touching my shoulder. I looked up and pulled the earbuds back out.

She smiled. “I want to hear your sonnet when you’re done. I’m sure it’ll be beautiful.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know what I was saying. I can’t write a sonnet.”

“Sure you can. And it’ll be great. I really do want to hear it. OK?” She squeezed my shoulder, and bent to kiss me on the head.

I smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I looked over at Ashley, now sleeping beside me. I didn’t know why I’d forgotten that night. It seemed both hazy and vivid, like an early-morning dream you experience moments before the alarm goes off.

I leaned over and rested my hand on Ashley’s shoulder. She didn’t stir. I squeezed gently, and pecked her on the cheek.

Maybe I could write a poem in my head — a short one that I could memorize and recite at breakfast. Just a couple of lines, really. Something sweet and crisp, yet also elegant and profound.

I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t get past the first line. I must have lain there for twenty minutes, grasping for the right words. My mind was as dark as the night around me. I was right: I couldn’t write sonnets, especially at one o’clock in the morning.

I huffed and flopped to my side. Forget the sonnet. Ashley probably wouldn’t remember, anyway. She’d probably think she dreamed the whole thing.

Besides, I think she’d had a little too much wine with dinner.