The Writers’ Salon

Simon had never attended a Writers’ Salon before.

“Do you bring food every week?”

Jill nodded. “Yes. We all bring something. It’s nice really. Gina brings some kind of green salad usually, and Celine contributes chicken salad and excellent bread or sometimes divine raspberry and lemon tarts. We’re never quite sure what Linda will bring. It varies. She’s a real ass kisser. If Andrea mentions something, chances are Linda will bring it the next week. Bob always brings Chinese food, and with Richard, it depends on his mood.”

“And what does Andrea contribute to the feast?”

“She contributes the plates and silverware and the house, of course.”

“Jolly good deal for her then.” Simon wanted to say, “What a crock.”

“Well, she does do all that reading, Simon.”

He cringed at her tone. It was just slightly disapproving, so he nodded. “Well, yes. She does do that.” For a $50 fee. “I’m not trying to disparage her, Jill. I’m just trying to figure out the rules.”

Jill laughed a little. “Oh, Simon. There are no real rules.” She checked herself. “Well, if you really want to get along with Andrea, you can sort of be extra pleasant to her. She likes men.”

“Oh.” Good God. Simon knew this woman was going to be unbearable.

From inside he could hear the barking of dogs before assorted furry bodies began to fling themselves at the screen door.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you about Andrea’s babies,” Jill said. “Try to make a fuss over them.”

“It sounds like a pack of rabid mongrels.” Simon liked dogs if they were well behaved and on leashes. He didn’t like dogs that jumped on you and poked their noses into your crotch. Their rude behavior reflected poorly on their owners. These appeared to be a mixed lot: a white Teacup Poodle, three Italian greyhounds, a Jack Russell Terrier, and a Yorkie that looked like moving dust mop.

Jill opened the screen door when a voice from inside called, “Here’s Jill, and she’s brought her friend.”

Simon could quite honestly say he had never met anyone like Andrea LaBelle. She swept toward him in her black beaded caftan, hands outstretched, the tips of her long red nails gleaming in the light. Her arms jingled with sliver bracelets and her fingers sparkled with rings made of amethyst and garnet and peridot. She wore thick false lashes, deep purple eye shadow and layers of powder that sank into the crevices and cracks in her face. Her hair was dyed raven, and her alarming eyebrows shot up into a point before sloping down the side of her head. Simon guessed she was somewhere between seventy and one hundred fifty.

The dogs were jumping on him, climbing his legs, thrusting their noses into his crotch, while he stood there holding out his Brie and crackers like a supplicant. He would have handed over all the money in his wallet if she would call the wretched creatures off of him.

“You must be Simon,” Andrea La Belle said. She jingled closer and relieved him of his offering before planting a kiss on his cheek. “How lovely to meet you. Where has Jillian been hiding you? I want you to sit right by me.”

Simon wanted to sprint for the door. One of the dogs, a greyhound was wrapped around his leg and the Jack Russell tore at the hem of his jeans. When he tried to move, the Jack Russell growled and bared his teeth.

“Silly, Rudy, stop growling. Naughty, Daphne. You’re not a boy, stop humping our guest.” Andrea La Belle clapped her hands. The dogs ignored her. “My babies are a teeny bit spoiled.” She managed to drag Simon to a chair at a long dinning table and shove him into it. Daphne resumed humping his leg.

“Find a seat, Jillian,” Andrea said, and Jillian slid into a seat across from him. She refused to meet his eyes.

He stared at the four people who sat watching the exchange. The woman to his left appeared to be in her early thirties. She had the lithe body of a dancer and plenty of wavy, dark hair she wore pulled into a careless ponytail. Her dark eyes were almond-shaped, and she had a full, sensual mouth. When she shook his hand, she let her fingers linger for a moment. She told him her name was Gina, she was writing a supernatural romance, and she would love to read his aura.

Next to her sat Bob, a balding chap, who sold insurance by day. He hated his job, had a wife and twin boys to support, and all his life he wanted to write. Now he was working on a crime novel about an insurance salesman who suffers a nervous breakdown and begins murdering customers. Bob had the manner of a friendly puppy and seemed delighted to find that Simon was English.

“How ‘bout that,” he said in an awful imitation of a British accent. “A genuine Englishman. I might ‘ave to pick your brain. I was thinking of making one of my victims a Brit.”

“How delightful.” Simon wasn’t at all sure he wanted this fellow or anyone else in the group picking at his brain.

The other male in the group, Richard, sat across the table from Bob, or rather lounged across the table. He sprawled back in his chair watching Simon, his face creased in an expression of disdain and amusement. He was tall and angular with a luxurious mass of gray hair and icy blue eyes.

“Did you grow up in England? Where did you go to school?” Richard threw it out like a challenge. “I’m a Harvard man myself. I’ve already been published. Perhaps you’ve read some of my poetry?”

“Your poetry . . .” Then Simon remembered the awful swill Jillian had shown him. The poem about an old man slipping on the ice, he bloody well remembered that. Snap. Crack goes the bone beneath my skin. Pop as it breaks the parchment surface. It reminded him of a commercial for a breakfast cereal, and the one about the man masturbating as he fantasized about a teenaged girl. Oh, he remembered those poems. “Yes, I did read your work. Jillian showed me. They were memorable.”

Richard gave him a sharp smile. “This is an excellent group here. Most of us have been published.” He turned to Bob who looked away. “Most of us expect to get published.”

“I expect so.” Simon smiled at the woman sitting next to Richard.

She held her hand to her mouth as if she were trying not to laugh. She possessed brilliant green eyes and shortish white hair and seemed a bit older than the other women, though her face was smooth. She didn’t have the tightened look of a woman who had undergone severe plastic surgery, yet her eyes held a certain cynical sagacity that comes from age. When she was younger, she must have been quite lovely because she still possessed an arresting face. She wore no wedding ring, but her fingers flashed with a number of large diamonds and rubies. She wore a deep red cashmere sweater that looked expensive by the heft of the yarn and a heavy gold necklace.

“I am Celine,” she said. “Welcome. I think you’ll be a wonderful addition. Just delightful. Jill talks about you so fondly. You must tell us about your book.”

She gave him a kind smile, and Simon felt a little more at ease.

“Before we talk books, we need to talk about what’s happening in our lives. I’ll go first,” Andrea said. “You see my dear Rudy there. He accidentally bit someone on Friday. It was awful! I didn’t know what to do. This man was threatening to call the police, but fortunately we were able to slip away just in the nick of time. Honestly, Rudy barely broke the skin. Thank God I parked across the street, or that awful man might have gotten my license plates.”

“Was the man teasing Rudy?” Celine’s mouth twisted into a curious half-smile.

“Well, no. But Rudy is so sensitive. Sometimes if someone doesn’t smell right, he just knows to go on alert.” Andrea waved her hand. “He was protecting his mummy.”

Mummy was right, Simon thought. Andrea looked like something an archeologist had dug up a thousand years ago. If she had any words of writerly wisdom to impart, he was William Shakespeare.

The dogs started to bark, and the door banged open. A tall, heavyset woman rushed into the room with a shopping bag in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Simon had a fleeting impression of a square face, thin lips and intelligent dark eyes. Linda had arrived. She flung herself into a chair opposite Andrea and let out a puff of air that blew her mussed bangs up from her forehead. Everything about her spoke of utility and practicality. Her dark brown hair was cut in a neat bob, her navy blue turtle neck and slacks were good quality, but not ostentatious. She wore a simple gold wedding band on square hands with short unpolished nails.

“Sorry I’m late, but I had to get the kids settled before I left.” She spoke in a loud, direct voice, like one used to giving orders and having them obeyed.

The group had assembled.

Memory Room

I lingered in the doorway and breathed in my memories.

Her room sat on the northeast side of the house overlooking the ocean, and I could smell the salt air wafting through the open balcony doors. It was a chilly room that was light without being sunny. Outside gulls called ceaselessly and in the distance, buoys clanged. The morning mist had burned off, but come evening, the air would be filled with the lonely call of the fog horns.

The room had ecru walls and cream-colored French provincial furniture. A double bed with its blue and white toile duvet sat in the center facing a massive double dresser. Blue curtains danced from the two wide-open balcony doors. On the bureau, neatly arranged, lay a brush, comb and mirror and an ornate silver box filled with a tangle of gold earrings and bracelets. Three sterling frames held photographs: one of me as a child, one of the two of us holding hands, and one of her standing on a balcony, her eyes fixed on some distant point, her lips drawn in an enigmatic smile. A cream colored rug with a pattern of blue flowers stretched over the pale oak floor.

On the far wall a series of built-in shelves held her collection of shells: the great pink conch, the pearlescent nautilus, the fat striated shark eye, down to the lowly clam shell and barnacle.

I stepped into the room and turned to face her nightstand. Her usual assortment of books was neatly piled underneath. She loved to read about ship wrecks and early American history, but her taste was eclectic. One might find the latest best seller or a classic piece of fiction in her pile. Her neatly folded glasses were on top of the table next to a white marble coaster.

Above the bed in nightmare slashes of vivid color hung a portrait of her. Her work, I knew without checking the signature. The woman’s orange lips stretched open in something between a scream or a laugh, her hands ripped at her wild purple and red hair while green blood ran down her arms like tears.

My sister’s portrait of me.

Casualties

“Lives have been lost, Mr. Richards. It’s an inevitable casualty of the war on terror.”

The jet pinwheels across the deck of the carrier, a twirling flame of destruction. Men cry in agony. Lives are snuffed out like so many candles. Is it better to die in a fireball or of hypothermia in fifty-degree water?

“Naturally, there will be an inquiry into the safety of the aircraft itself. The design. The engineering. The, uh, fuel. You understand what I’m saying. Our firm has been retained to provide the best possible legal defense for NorCom Industries. We expect your full attention to this matter.”

One after another, standing jets ignite on the deck as burning drops of fuel rain down. More green blue flames shoot into the violet sky like fireworks. Metal twists and groans as if the heat is a knife cutting the ship in two. Men leap overboard, their bodies ablaze. The ship is melting.

“The Navy is calling this the worst peacetime disaster at sea ever recorded, but I believe we can turn this situation around.”

Debris litters the surface of the ocean. Waves rise and fall. Black slime covers the water like a shadow.

“Let’s get to work then.”

There are no survivors.

Two Monkeys

“I don’t like this painting.” Emily stood in front of the copy of Brugegel’s Two Monkey’s and frowned. It hung in Joseph’s study over a comfortable red leather chair next to an arched window.

“Why is that?” Joseph smiled and held out his hands.

Emily shivered. The monkey on the left stared with sorrowful black eyes while the other gazed out of the arched window where the Scheldt River and the city of Antwerp stretched out. But the monkeys themselves sat chained to the windowsill in a darkened room, destined only to stare into the world beyond their solitary prison.

“It seems so cruel.” She went to him and sat on the edge of his chair.

“Ah, but in its day, it might have been considered a pun on the political times of the fourteenth to sixteen centuries. Then there was much “singerie” or monkey tricks for control of the Scheldt. On the right side of the river the count of Flanders was allied with France, but on the left the marquisate of Antwerp was aligned with Germany. In Bruegel’s time, 1562 the Emperor removed all room for maneuvering from his rivals. He chained them, so to speak.”

“I suppose that’s what successful monarchs do.”

“Sometimes one must be ruthless to maintain a kingdom. Yes. That is true.” He stroked her hand. “But it not something for you to worry about.”

“Will you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

She leaned closer, her golden hair tumbling over her shoulders, and her deep blue eyes filling slightly. “Will you take the picture down?”

He kissed her hand. “For you? Anything. Consider it gone.”

She flung her arms around him. “I do love you so much.”

“And I you, my dear.” He kissed her and glanced at his watch. “Now, we must get dressed. We cannot be late for a state dinner.” He looked at her and tilted his head. “Wear the blue velvet. It’s particularly becoming, and the diamond necklace.”

“It’s very heavy, Joseph.” Her voice trembled a little.

“Nonetheless. It suits you. And that suits me.” He kissed her again. “Now hurry, my dear.”

She gave him another tremulous smile before she hurried from the room.

Joseph waited for a moment before he stood and walked to the painting and pulled it down from the wall. He would replace it with something else from his cache, something more–what was the word–upbeat. He smiled and carried the picture with him. He told people it was an excellent copy, and they believed him because everyone knew the original sat in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin.

It was such a small picture, just 19.8 x 23.2 cm. Freedom and captivity. The two animals formed a perfect spiral from the ring that held their chains to the arch of the window overlooking the flowing river, the cathedral of Antwerp. That was the eternal dance—hope and hopelessness.

Joseph went to the wine cellar, and used the special key to open the door hidden behind a rack of exquisite French burgundy. He descended deep into the bowls of the house.

The two men sat in cells across from each other. They had been proud men once, even handsome men. Now both were stooped and gray. They stared at him with flat red-rimmed eyes.

He didn’t believe in torture. They had light—albeit dim light—water, food. Their waste was removed twice a day. Their clothing was grey, almost like a doctor’s scubs. Easy to remove and clean. Their left ankles were shackled to the floor by substantial iron chains.

He regarded the men. “And how are you, this afternoon?”

Neither man answered. Men without tongues could not talk or plot.

“I have brought you a present. Just for the night. Alas, I cannot afford to leave it here any longer for your enjoyment. But I feel you’ll both appreciate the picture for what it is. My new wife did not, and I will do anything for her, especially now that she bears my child.”

He propped the picture on a ledge. “It’s a reminder. You believed I would spare you because you’re my sons?” Joseph shrugged. “But you forgot I am the master of the game. No more monkey tricks for the two of you.”

He heard strangled sounds that sounded like sobbing as he made his way back up the stairs.

Walter

Walter Grindle sits in a small cubicle in the corner of the office that doesn’t have windows. On two sides he faces sickly green walls on two sides half wall, half glass. Walter believes he is the office manager because his father owns the company, but Marsha Goldman who sits in the opposite cubicle—the one with windows on two sides—is the real office manager.

She gives Walter petty jobs, like taking inventory and adding up the day’s invoices. Walter loves numbers. He hunches at his computer, his fingers tap tapping at the keyboard as he inputs figures and smiles because he believes he is doing important work. Marsha doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the computers have already calculated the day’s figures and incorporated them into the weekly, monthly and yearly totals. They will be automatically updated at 5:31 p.m. Walter does do a very nice job of keeping track of the inventory, however.

“Hey, Cindy,” Walter says looking up from his computer.

Cindy Sautherton halts and takes a breath to compose herself. “Yes, Walter?”

“I noticed that you took a box of legal pads last week. You didn’t fill out a form.” He holds up one of his specially designed color coded forms for her and waves it. His smile stretches across his rubbery face, and she stares at his pink gums and tiny square teeth. His black glasses ride up his nose and behind them his small black eyes leer at her. He shakes the form again. “Come and get it.”

She exchanges a look with Jeff Wong who rolls his eyes in sympathy. Jeff sits right outside of Walter’s office and is subjected to a constant barrage of jokes and remarks that only a man of extraordinary patience could endure. Jeff is a Buddhist. Though he has been born and educated in the United States, he has begun to pretend he doesn’t understand English very well.

Cindy walks into Walter’s cubicle and reaches for the form. He holds it just out of reach.

“Say the magic word,” he says.

“Please, Walter. Will you give me the form, so I can get back to work?” Cindy generally is good at handling Walter, but today her patience is frayed. Today she has three reports to finish and a presentation to prepare. Right now she just wants the goddamn form. “Give me that, Walter.”

“You should be polite,” Walter says. “If I tell my dad, you’ll get fired.”

“Fine. Tell your dad. Just give me the form.” She reaches over and snatches it out of his hand. She checks off legal pads, signs her name, and tosses the form back at him. “Here. Take your form.”

“I guess we aren’t having drinks tonight, Sin-Cindy.”

“We’ll never have drinks.”

Cindy walks out of his office. She hears Walter mutter, “I hate them all. I’ll tell Dad.”

He says that all the time.

She passes Tina and Jolene on her way back to her desk. “Take the long way to the ladies room,” she says. “His highness is in a mood. I hope you didn’t take supplies.”

Jolene sits back in her chair and folds her arms. “Why doesn’t his daddy stick him someplace useful? Like on a farm shoveling shit?”

Tina just giggles. “Oh, he’s kinda sad. Don’t you think?”

“Poor Jeff. If I was him, I’d wring the little bastard’s neck.” Jolene shakes her head.

The day passes slowly until it finally is five-thirty. Walter has enjoyed his afternoon, telling the new guy in accounting that he needs to work harder–of course, Marsha comes into his office and puts an end to his lecture. He’s sent Jolene a link to some new miracle diet because he knows she’s always trying to loose weight, and he has asked Ali, the new receptionist out. She’s said no.

At the end of the day, he asks no one in particular who is up for a round at the local pub. There are no takers. He watches his co-workers file out. No matter. He’ll get them next week.

Walter gets his coat and heads for the parking garage, but he recognizes the red Mini on the second level as Cindy’s. Across and down is a blue Toyota that he’s pretty sure belongs to Jolene.

Walter pulls in next to Cindy’s car and walks to the exit like a bloodhound on the trail. He heads to the pub everyone used to frequent, but no one from the office is there. He tries a few more on the street and is about to give up when he sees a place tucked into an alley.

Walter ducks down the alley and peers in the window. They’re all there at a big round table. Cindy and Jeff. Jolene and Tina. Ali, the new receptionist, and the guy from accounting. Even Marsha. They’re all sitting together and laughing like friends.

Walter swallows a few times and tries to will one of them to look up and see him, but no one does. He turns and walks back to the parking garage. He pulls out his keys and scrapes them the length of Cindy’s car before he drives home.

The Mouse

“I think we have mice,” Kayla said. She rolled over on the sofa and placed her ear against the wall, sure that she had just heard the scuffling of feet. Nothing. She looked back at Matt who slouched in the red chair, his feet on the coffee table, his eyes half closed.

Did you hear me? I think we have mice?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s the neighbors upstairs. I’m sure they’d fumigate.”

He held up the remote and began to switch through the channels until Kayla said, “Pick something.”

“Huh? Nothing on really.” He left it on the Military Channel where there was a program on World War II and fell asleep. Kayla listened for the scratching, but it remained quiet. Almost as if the mice knew she was listening for them.

They’d been lucky to get this place. It was a decent size two-bedroom, and they split the twenty-four hundred dollar rent. The drawback was that it was a basement apartment—garden apartment, the owner called it—though it only had small half windows in the front of the living room and in the back at the kitchen. Because the house sat in the middle of the block there were no windows in the bedrooms.

“Cells,” Kayla called them, though Matt didn’t seem to care. He seemed to enjoy holing up in his dark little bedroom and tapping away on his computer.

“You’re like a mole,” Kayla would tell him. He was a little with his longish nose and thick round wire rimmed glasses. He was a psych student of independent means. Quiet, easy-going, he kept to himself most of the time, but that was fine by Kayla. She had her own friends.

“You’re too picky. This place is perfect for you. You can walk to work.”

He was right. It was a fifteen-minute walk to her office at Dupont Circle, and yet there were those noises. Not all the time, but enough. Except Matt didn’t hear them. Whenever he came into the room, they stopped.

Kayla decided to buy an electronic mouse trap. It was the most humane thing. She would bait it with peanut butter and let it do its work. The directions said it could hold up to six mice at a time.

She set it up behind the couch and waited. A week went by. Then two. The trap remained empty, but the scratching continued. At night when she was lying in bed, she’d hear the scritch scratching on the wall, the scrabble of little feet, and she’d toss and turn until morning. She couldn’t eat. She’d imagine mice running through the cupboards prying into their supplies, leaving a trail of little brown turds behind. Stepping into the shower with its dark curtain terrified her so she bathed less and less often. Her hair became a chaotic nest of tangles around her thin, white face. She was too tired to do laundry.

Kayla would find herself drifting off at work. During a presentation by the president of her company, she began to snore. She was fired that afternoon.

Kayla dragged herself home and threw herself on her bed. She no longer cared about the scratching. She just wanted to sleep.

When she woke, all was dark and still. She didn’t hear a sound except her own breathing.

“Feeling better?” Matt said.

“I am a little.”

Kayla started to stand, but Matt grasped her arm and pulled her down. “No, I’m afraid you won’t be leaving yet. This is the second part of the experiment. I call it sensory deprivation. Don’t worry. It’s not total, and I won’t let you starve or dehydrate. Maggie was very resilient. I expect you will be too. Who knows? You make even make it to Stage Three.”

Kayla could feel hear her heart throbbing. “Stage Three?”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Matt said as he wrapped duct tape around her hands. He slapped a final piece across her mouth. “The record is four months. Let’s just see how you do.”

We Could Be Heros

Jimmy Hanson slipped on his Boba Fett helmet and stared at himself in his mirror. He pulled out his plastic blaster and pointed it. He looked pretty badass. This Star Wars party would be pretty outrageous—of course, all Jen’s parties were.

Jimmy guessed he was getting a little old to be dressing up and running around with blasters and light sabers, but what the hell, he was four days from graduating with honors. He had a real job lined up. There was plenty of time to grow up and start paying off his loans. If he were lucky, he’d have enough left over to eat a real dinner more than once a week.

Jimmy figured he could walk to Allie’s apartment. He headed down Commonwealth Avenue, enjoying the early May air. Still cool, trees just starting to bloom.

A couple of people honked, and he waved. He figured he’d stop and pick up a couple of bottles of wine and a pint of Jameson’s for himself. He took off his helmet and ducked into a store.

Jimmy never could decide whether to pick up red or white, so he grabbed a bottle of chardonnay and was heading for the pinot noir when he heard shouting. He peered around the Captain Morgan display to see a short guy in the front of the store waving a gun and the terrified clerk behind the counter.

“Gimme your cash. Gimme your cash now!”

Jimmy set the bottle of chardonnay on the shelf and crouch-walked toward the front of the store. A woman in an orange sweater stood frozen by the counter, and he could almost hear the kathunk of her heart.

“We don’t keep much money in the till, man.”

“Stop lyin’, bitch!” The man with the gun paced a little before he reached over and dragged the woman against him. “I’ll blow her brains out. I’ll do it. Just watch me.”

The woman began to scream.

Do something. What would Boba Fett do?

Jimmy reasoned that Boba Fett probably wouldn’t do anything since he was a character in a movie. However, since he was dressed in character, and Boba Fett was a badass character at that, Jimmy felt he should do something.

He wanted to jump up, but his body wouldn’t obey. If he moved the gunman might get startled and shoot. Jimmy didn’t want to see the woman’s brains spattered all over the counter.

“Gimme your cash!”

Jimmy’s phone began to ring. The familiar Star Wars Theme echoed in the store.

“What the hell?” The gunman let go of the woman who slumped to the ground, and Jimmy grabbed a bottle of whipped cream vodka. Before he could quite register what he was doing, he had tossed it as hard as he could.

It exploded in a rain of glass and alcohol over the gunman’s face. He dropped the gun on the counter and began to scream.

“Jesus Christ, what was that? My eyes! My eyes!”

While the clerk grabbed the gun, Jimmy dialed the police. The woman in the orange sweater crawled to the door, pulled it open, and ran down the street screaming for help. Soon a small crowd had gathered on Commonwealth Avenue.

Jimmy didn’t tell anyone about the incident. It sounded too incredible, and he figured no one would believe it, until it made the front page of the Boston Globe. Then he stared at the photo of himself in his Boba Fett helmet, the clerk, and the woman in the orange sweater. The paper identified him as Bob Hanson, and that was fine by Jimmy. He didn’t consider himself a hero.

The next day, a case of whipped cream vodka arrived at his dorm.