The goal of this workshop is to give the participants an opportunity to share honest, friendly feedback that can lead to a well-critiqued and edited anthology to be proud of. Remember – Your work may never be seen by the devoted readers, agents or publishers who are looking for good writers, if their attention is lost before they get to your story. It’s in everyone’s best interest to help each other have fun and create stories the readers can’t put down.
(First shot at iambic pentameter. Kudos to Shakespeare, it’s not easy. This was written for submission to be included as an extra in a novel. Wasn’t accepted.)
Ode to the Dead.
By Wayne Hills
Lament the dead’s retreat thy hallowed grounds.
The living’s fear is wrought with despair.
For all alive, a certain death abounds.
The hordes advanced. We flee in disbelief.
Pampered lives dissolve, no chance to repair.
Human’s broken society would get no relief.
Grab the child, canned food, some meager gear.
Carry all on ours backs, no room to spare.
Left to rot all else. Chattel held most dear.
Abscond from sound of death approaching.
Keep faith to find safe passage rare.
Upon our souls the horror encroaching.
In abandoned barn, or noxious sewage pipe.
Sleepless eyes locked in unending death stare.
We lay down our heads, steal flashes of respite.
Snap of twigs twix shuffle of decayed feet.
Panic overcomes frayed nerves worn bare.
Their inhuman sense tracks us, we are fresh meat.
She trips. I fall. They move so quick.
Teeth rip flesh. My chances at life are ne’re.
My blood and gore make skin grow slick.
All black, no light, my breath abated.
Hope for salvation go without prayer.
Undead quest for blood, are fully satiated.
I rise and I walk. I feel their desire.
To hunt the living a need I now share.
The quest for life’s blood fueled by hell’s fire.
She grieves for my loss, her love for me pales.
For I recall not her face, the scent of her hair.
My only desire, is to feast upon her entrails.
I search. They run. Locked in a never-ending trial.
Between life and death, a thin fabric tear.
Of love everlasting, and present reality’s denial.
2015 NYC Midnight Flash-fiction competition.
Group 24-Genre:Historical Fiction-Location: A horse track-Object-A rocking chair.
The Trumpeter’s Song.
Synopsis: In the United States during the turbulent sixties, a plan is hatched to bring about the fall of America’s Camelot.
In a smoke-filled office overlooking the thoroughbred track at Monmouth Park, New Jersey, a man in a well-tailored suit is smoking a Cuban cigar. The faraway sound of a trumpet calling horses to the gates draws his attention away from a stack of ledger sheets piled on his mahogany desk.
The office is paneled in dark oak, thick ornate carpeting covers the floor. Large panes of glass take up one wall creating a window overlooking the horses on the dirt oval below. The muffled starting bell and the frenzied call of the track announcer filter through the opening. Glancing at a calendar on the wall to his left, he picks up and dials the phone.
The clattering of a telephone breaks the silence in another oval, this one, an office located in Washington DC.
A Boston-Irish voice answers. “This is John.”
“How ya’ doin’, Johnny. Hoffa here,” replies the caller.
“I know who it is, I recognize your nasal-Jersey accent. What do you want?”
“Just want what ya’ promised, Mr. President. Secretary of Labor. Ya’ fuhget it was my men who got the vote out for ya’ last election? I’m reminding you of the fact that I’m still waiting on your call. My patience is wearing thin.”
“Hoffa, you can’t threaten the President of United States.”
“Whoa, Johnny, don’t mistake my intention. I’m a Jersey boy. We don’t make threats. We make promises. And then we keep them, unlike ya’ Boston jack-offs.”
John clenches his teeth, takes a deep breath and responds, “You know where I am Jimmy? I’m relaxing in my father’s chair. The rocker the Bethlehem Steel unions gave him after World War One because he knew how to play the game. But you break the rules, Jimmy. The Teamsters aren’t enough for you, you’re running more schemes than my people can keep a lid on. You’d never be confirmed by Congress. And more importantly, I can’t trust you.”
“Ya’ trusted me enough to take care of your little problem in L.A. Even the head-cheese of America can’t bang every big-boobed slut that sings Happy Birthday to him without repercussions. She thought she could bring ya’ down but she didn’t have the means to. Well, I’ve got the means and the balls to do it.”
John’s legs tighten, rocking him back in the chair. Clenching his free hand into a fist, he shakes it at the handset. He takes another deep breath, exhales away from the phone’s mouthpiece, rolls forward, and places his elbows on his knees. “You were compensated for that. You have control of labor unions that aren’t even in your God-damned state. We’re square.”
“Yes-sir, on that deal we are. But I want more.”
Muted cheers trickle in from the track.
He continues. “Look, I’m not asking for something for nuthin’. Don’t forget I’m a man of many talents. Who got ya’ this secret phone line? I did. My men in the CWA set it up without a peep to anybody. And now I got something you’ve been aching to get done since your CIA boys botched that island invasion back in sixty-one.”
Taking a long pull on the cigar, Hoffa blows a series of smoke rings over the desk. “Whatta ya’ say, Commander-in-Chief? Shall we find a way to bypass those pesky hearings?”
“I say go to Hell, Hoffa. I’m done dealing with you. Next time you hear from me, it’ll be through my brother.”
Slamming down the phone, John rises, walks to his desk, and depresses the intercom.
“Mrs. Lincoln, get Robert on the line. I’ve got an issue to discuss with him.”
Mrs. Evelyn Lincoln, personal secretary to the President, and proud member of the Communication Workers of America, makes the call and connects the Attorney General to his boss. Neither man notices that she never disconnects her headset.
Minutes later, a telephone rings, drowning out the sound of ‘First Call’ for the start of the afternoon’s next race.
“Hoffa here.” Listening, he starts to take notes.
“Yeah, we talked.”
“He called Bobby and said that, did he?”
“He’s got a trip to Texas soon, doesn’t he?”
“No, nothing to be concerned with. I may send him a gift. Special delivery.”
“Thanks, Lincoln. You just take care of your father, we’ll take care of his medical bills. G’nite.”
Jimmy flips through a small black notebook, and dials a private number into the offices of the Dallas Service Employees Local #5.”
“Ruby, Hoffa here. How’s that nightclub we set ya’ up with working out? You’re cleaning up a lot of money for us, and we’re grateful.”
Jimmy begins creating a to-do list.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing for your family, us helping you out with those debts of yours. Ya’ really need to learn how to pick the ponies better. Look, Jack, I didn’t call just to shoot the shit with ya’. I’d like to say it’s a favor I’m asking, but it needs to be done, and you’re our man in Texas. We need someone gone, it’s best for our Union brothers, and that means it’s good for America.”
“No, I can’t be more specific, secret phone line or no. Let’s just say they’ll be a lotta tears and a State funeral when we’re done. The man welched on a deal. Y’know I can’t let anyone get away with that.”
“Yeah, we’ll need a patsy. He’s gotta be believable and he’s gotta go away quick before he can talk. Who’ve you got?”
“An ex-Marine? I thought once a Mar–.”
“Oh, he defected? Didn’t know anyone went that way. Thought they only came over to us.”
“He sounds perfect. I’ll place a call to the local PBA and get the cleanup handled. And look, anytime you want a tip, just call. I’ll put the fix in for ya’.”
“Fuhget about it. Goodbye Jack.”
As the sun sets on the track, the trumpeter’s song announces the day’s final race.
The ledge theory of storytelling.
By Wayne Hills
Put your main character on a precipice so that if they fall, they’re dead.
That cliff could be real, a physical or imaginary height. The fall would maim or kill them, or in the case of an emotional or fiscal abyss, ruin their life.
Your reader will have that thought in their mind throughout the story, always knowing that at any moment, it will be over for the character.
Good or evil, the story will be carried by that momentum.
Had a writer’s dream last night.
I was a writer in a ’50s era TV show. A weekly drama with a set cast that performed a different story every week.
I was teamed with a woman–who as best I can guess was a compilation of several female friends in the FB writer’s groups I’m in.
Although I usually dream in color, everything was black and white. Dressed as characters in the shows from that era–she in a long-sleeved full length dress, while I wore a solid grey suit with a white shirt and tie–we were collecting checks for the past week and were trying to find inspiration for the next week’s story.
I was then in a car driving to the Hollywood Sheraton. The car is a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief–I’m using this car in a story I’m writing in my non-dreaming life. The Sheraton, must be Hollywood because that’s where I was dreaming to be, and the Sheraton because I was just at one yesterday on a rescue transport.
I pulled in the front entrance to the hotel which had a small strip mall as part of the parking lot.I parked near the back of the mall and entered a small nondescript office, and this is why I’m sharing this dream.
The office’s interior resembled a stereotypical doctor’s waiting room, several chairs and couches, unmarked doors spaced throughout the room. Sitting on the furniture were faceless people, their clothes and skin the same shade of fuzzy gray. More of these, blank-slate people, were milling about, entering doors, coming out of others. They weren’t doing anything.
I was studying them, trying to figure out why they were there? Why were two sitting together, and why were others apart? What was in the doors? What were they thinking? Why did they HAVE to be here?
I started yelling at them.
“I need a story. Don’t just sit there.”
I ran up to one and screamed in it’s blank face.
“Do something compelling.”
Then I woke up.
I peeked behind the curtain of my mind and have seen what happens when I ask my muse to show me a movie that I can write a story about.
Thought I’d share this, at the very least maybe my future therapist can use it to explain my condition.
There are a lot of inside jokes in this story. My wife and I watched our nieces for an afternoon, this is the story that came out of it.
When something doesn’t make sense, it’s one of those inside comments. In general, it can be followed. Just accept the things that seem a little off.
Puppies and Rainbows. The unexpected agents of the apocalypse.
By Wayne Hills
“Booo-hoo. My puppesch are schtuck in that building.”
The young girl, dressed in a black and red frilly dress, cried outside a nondescript warehouse. The child’s thick lisp, made it difficult for the policeman to understand what she was saying as he tried to comfort her.
“It’s okay little girl, we’ll find your dogs.”
“Schaank you, mischter polischman.”
Eve was frustrated that it took, this particular dolt, five minutes to figure it out. Conquering the world was becoming time consuming.
The policeman patted her on the head, turned on his flashlight, and walked through the rusted door.
The hallway was pitch black. Walls, ceiling, floor, all covered in some sort of light-absorbing paint. The strong beam of light didn’t reflect off any of the surfaces. The point that the spot hit, was where it stopped. Aiming it straight in front of him, the light seemed to disappear into the distance.
Turning to leave, he heard a faint whimper in the distance.
“Here pup.” He called into the dark. “C’mon boy. Or girl, whatever. Come here pup.”
He began feeling his way down the hall into the void.
That’s when he heard the snap. And the floor beneath him opened.
Flailing, his hands couldn’t grip the walls of the chute as he plummeted downward. Shouting as he fell, his voice joined that of others pleading for help. Many others.
Eve smiled. She removed a small remote control from her pocket, pointed it into the adjacent parking lot, and pressed one of several small buttons on the device. A hot-pink helicopter shimmered into view. On the tail, the call sign ‘DOMIN8 WRLD’ painted in bold block letters.
This is how it always started, one policeman will disappear into her trap. Two more will come to find out what happened to him. The only thing they’ll find is a ten-year-old girl crying over her lost puppies. They’ll go through the same door hundreds of others had entered. None of them had ever returned.
Those two will be followed by four more, than eight, and so on. Each group will find the girl and her tears.
Eventually they’ll all be gone. And Eve Lucinda, will be one step closer to her dream of world domination.
That is, unless the world can find a hero to stop her.
“Tacos” Quinn said as she sniffed the air.
“No, Miss Bowe. It’s cereal.”
Quinn halted raising the next spoonful of Lucky Charms to her mouth and looked at her assistant. “Not now, Maeby.” Her nickname for her assistant, Maybelline. “In the future. The tacos are less than a day out.”
The ability to smell was what yet to come was Quinn’s unique super-power. She’d been able to do it for as long as she could remember. It came in handy in surprising ways as she fought global crime.
The emergency phone rang.
Maeby picked up the bright red handset. “Yes, Madam President.” The leader of the world was the only one with the secret number, and therefore, the only one to ever call. And then, only when there was a threat to the planet.
“Yes ma’am.” Maeby tapped notes into a tablet as Quinn finished her breakfast. “Yes I see. Very good ma’am. I’ll let Miss Bowe know.” She hung up the phone, and brought the pad over to the table to show Quinn.
Using her free hand to switch between screens, she read Maeby’s notes and the global news reports as she finished her breakfast.
Quinn said between bites, “Looks like we have a new foe. Someone named, Eve Lucinda. She’s built herself a new helicopter. Bright pink, exploding cannons, ultra-speed capability. Nice vehicle for spreading mayhem.”
“Madam President said that she is suspected to be responsible for the disappearance of the police forces from New York, Paris, London, and they’re beginning to be reported missing in Mexico City.”
“Mexico?” Quinn dropped her spoon into her empty bowl. “Tacos are Mexican food, aren’t they?” She smiled at her assistant. “Is the sun up yet?”
“Just rising now Miss Bowe. Shall I prepare the uniform?”
“Yes, Maeby. Happy birth of a day. I’ll be riding rainbows today. I’ve got a fiend to catch.”
Minutes later, Quinn Raine Bowe, was dressed in her signature outfit. Sky-blue leotard, shiny-white spandex tights, multi-colored striped leg warmers. And her most recognizable accessory, her rainbow cape.
Quinn opened the massive doors to her patio overlooking a vast mountain range. Waving her hands, she summoned a rainbow to transport her across the globe.
“Maeby, alert the president that I’ll be going to Mexico City. I’ll be having tacos, and Eve L., for lunch.”
Eve watched her captives milling about the cell she had her minions build in the center of the Earth. The uniformed men and woman cried out to her for food and water.
She walked over to the captive nearest her.
“I have good newsch for you. Tonight you’ll have schefood.”
The man’s eyes lit up as he reached through the bars towards her.
She pulled an apple from her pocket and showed it to him.
“Scheee? Food!” A high-pitched maniacal laugh echoed through the chamber as she put the apple back into her pocket.
As she walked away, her assistant, and lead henchman Gizmo asked, “Wh-wh-why not just kill them-m-m-m all at onc-c-ce?”
She replied “I prefer to nibble on my prey.” And laughed some more at her own wickedness.
While analyzing a pile of nachos for the most efficient starting point, Quinn sat in a small plaza café waiting for her entrée’ of chicken tacos. This was her third restaurant of the day. The first was a lunch truck parked in front of the main police department. Those tacos smelled good, but were too spicy. The second, a restaurant named, ‘Just Salads’. This name turned out to be the literal description of what they offered. You’d order, pay, and hold out your hands in a bowl shape in front of the cashier. They would then place the salad into your hands. There were no bowls, no silverware, no napkins. Just salad. Although tasty, the messy taco salad smelled too much like the melted cheese that was poured over her hands and halfway up her forearms. Maeby was going to be angry at having to clean the stains from her outfit.
Quinn had to continue to look for a match to the smell from breakfast. Until she found the right taco, she wouldn’t be able to act. Her power was never wrong, the scent had to be the same or else she was in the wrong place, or there at the wrong time.
As she began picking at the warm chips of her nachos, balancing the bean, to meat, to cheese proportions perfectly, a police car sped past. It was heading towards the factories and storage buildings near the outskirts of the city. She listened in on the local emergency radio-bands for any suspicious announcements.
A plate of tacos was placed in front of her.
“He-he-here you are ma-ma-ma-ma’me.”
“Thank you.” Quinn said, unaware of her waiter’s true identity.
She leaned over and inhaled deeply. The smell didn’t match.
“Oh well.” She said.
The waiter asked, “Is th-th-there something wro-wro-wrong?”
“No, everything is fine. The tacos just don’t smell the way I need them to.”
“Sorry. I-I-I forgot the li-li-lime.”
He took the lid off a small bowl on the tray he had carried to the table, removed a wedge of lime, and squirted it around her plate.
Quinn leaned over and sniffed again. The scent matched. She had found the location.
As she stood, two more police cars sped past heading in the same direction as the first.
“I’ve got to follow those cars.” She said to the waiter.
“Not schoo fascht.” A small voice said from behind her.
Quinn turned to see a child, a girl standing behind her chair.
“Who are you?” Quinn asked.
“You’ll schee schoon enough. Did you know that gullible isch written on the scheiling?”
Puzzled, Quinn looked up. Before she realized that she had just fallen for, perhaps, the oldest trick in the book, Eve L. shocked her with a Taser, knocking her unconscious.
Quinn awoke tied to the spire on top of the city’s tallest building. The metal antennae was used for the Government’s police and military radio communications. It was dark, well past midnight.
She saw the same girl from the plaza. Realizing who she was, she said, “Eve L., I should have known it was you. Our intelligence warned me that you only employ minions with speech impediments.”
“That’sch right, Misch Rainbow. You’re not schow schmart are you?”
“Why are you doing this Eve? What do you hope to accomplish?”
“Puppesch, of coursch. They muscht be schaved.”
Quinn’s brow furrowed, “Shaved? You capture policeman because you want to shave all the puppies?”
“No. No. No! Not shaved. Schaved. I want them to be schafe.”
“Oh.” Quinn said, realizing that Eve’s lisp could really confuse some things. “You want to, save, them. Protect them from harm. Now that makes sense. But why capture all the policeman? Won’t they want to help you?”
“I tried that, I releasched a video of my manifeschto, aschking for people to schtop being mean to puppesch.”
Eve pulled the remote device out of her pocket and pressed a button as she pointed it in front of Quinn. A holographic image appeared of Eve holding a pair of dachshund puppies. She was standing in a room with black walls. On the wall behind her, written in dripping red letters, were the words, ‘Zombie Party’. The 3D image began to speak.
This is what Quinn thought she said.
“Hello, what’s up? This is fun. Chiefs chill stun chill chill. Faculty still rtffmm. Do Dublin cleric oque. Couch grew cup. Haw haw.”
Eve shut off the projection and looked at Quinn.
“Schee, it kchouldn’t be kchlearer.”
Quinn knew she was dealing with someone who would be hard to reason with. She also knew that Eve didn’t know how the rainbow ability worked, and although tied up, she would soon have the upper hand. The sky was already beginning to lighten, Quinn just needed to stall until the sun broke the horizon.
Quinn said, “I know what you mean. I can help you. I love puppies too. And kittens.”
“No kittensh!” Eve’s eye’s glared at Quinn. “Kittensch grow up to be catsh. And catsch are mean to puppesch.”
She turned to her minion Gizmo. “Gizscmo, releasch the toe fungisch.”
Quinn shivered. Eve did know something about her after all. Toe fungus was her weakness. If allowed to infect her, her rainbow power would become unstable, she wouldn’t be able to control it.
“Wait. I’m sorry.” Quinn said. “No kittens, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Eve held her hand up to Gizmo to stop him from opening the vial containing the fungus.
“Why schould I believe you, Rainbow?”
“I can help, I can protect the puppies, but I have to know why you’re doing this. Why do you want to defend them so badly?”
Eve paused, her hand holding Gizmo in check wavered slightly. Quinn held her breath. Not much longer until the sun’s first beams broke into a new day.
“Becausche of my speesch impediment. Puppesch are the only thingsh nicshe to me.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s not true.” Quinn was bluffing. “I can get you help for your speech too. You don’t have to be evil.”
“But thatsch my name. Eve Luschinda. Eve L.”
Quinn shook her head. “No, not Eve L. You are Eve L., you don’t have to be evil, Eve L.”
Eve thought about what Quinn had said. She waved Gizmo off and he returned the vial to the small case at his feet.
The sun’s first beam reached across the sky.
“Happy birth day.” Quinn said.
“Itsch not my birschday.”
“Not Birthday.’ Quinn replied. “Every sunrise is the birth of day. Happy birth day.”
“Sunrisch?” Eve realized that Quinn had been stalling. “Gizschmo, the fungisch!”
It was too late for them. Quinn twirled her finger creating a tiny rainbow that untied her restraints.
She yelled to her captors, “Hey, what’s that over there?”
Falling for the oldest trick in the book, Eve turned to look behind her. Quinn spun her hand in a circle creating a rainbow lasso that ensnared her foe and her henchman.
A year later, Quinn and Eve were best friends. Quinn had released all the policeman from their prison. They promised to protect the puppies of the world from harm. And secretly agreed to watch over kittens too but thought that it would be better to keep that information from Eve.
Eve and all her minions had begun speech therapy paid for by all the people who also wanted puppies to be safe. Turns out she was a bit of a folk hero.
Early one morning, Quinn signed Eve out of her world-court assigned jail cell to take her out into the world for her first day back into society.
Quinn said, “Happy birth day Eve. Where should would you like to go for lunch?”
Eve replied, “I know a good place for salads. A little messy, but they make a good taco.”
For Eva and Julia. By Uncle Miguel and Aunt Susan.
My step-father passed away recently. I felt compelled to write this piece.
I had a dad for the first ten years of my life; I don’t remember much of the man.
He was tall, granted I was a child so everyone was. He had a permanent 5 O’clock shadow. He kept a collection of electric razors next to his mahogany-red leather recliner, he’d sit in the chair buzzing away at the stubble whenever he was home. And he drove a dark blue ‘66 Corvette, which sparked my love of muscle cars. I remember riding in that fast, loud, sports car as he sped through a toll booth and threw change at the basket without slowing down.
That’s about it. Not much to go by as far as fond memories of my father.
When he passed away in 1970, he left our mom alone with six children, three older, two younger. For the next seven years our mom raised us without help.
During these formative years, we had a lot of unsupervised time to ourselves. I for one, and I don’t think I’m going out a limb when I say I was not unique, did things that I’m not proud of. Made a lot of dumb choices, went down some roads that I wouldn’t have if there were a strong male figure present during my teenage years.
When I was a junior in High School, our mom adopted a boy who needed a stable home. We already knew him, and he was my age, so he fit right in. What’s one more when you’re raising six already? Seven teenagers, one house, one parent working full time. Although we did bicker and play hard, we learned to look out for each other.
That’s about the time our mom met John. He had two children of his own, (cue the Brady Bunch theme music here.) The youngest of the pair, a boy, was named after him. So we, the wise-asses that we were and continue to be, called the son, Little John, and our mother’s new beau, Big John. A name that stuck with him for the next four decades.
A paragraph ago, I mentioned that we were a group of seven fatherless children growing up in the early ‘70s. Let that sink in for a moment. The 1970’s in the United States. There was a lot going on in this country back then. When mom and Big John met, we were a rock and roll, authority thumbing, foul-mouthed group of teenagers. Although we loved and feared our mom, each of us at some point realized that we were bigger than her, a stern smack on the butt no longer held us in check. I should also point out with some personal embarrassment, that I began to like the taste of soap. That punishment no longer worked either.
Big John worked for the telephone company in a management positon. I don’t think we ever knew what he did for a living. Whatever it was, that job wasn’t the relevant information to a bunch of wild long-haired kids. Big John’s previous job was. He was a Drill Instructor for the US Marine Corps. (Cue the Halls of Montezuma music here.)
You can see our dilemma.
“Feral, (in a suburban neighborhood kind of way,) teenagers, meet, (stereotypical symbol of authority,) USMC-DI Big John. Our first few years were not smooth.
Despite the rough introduction, this was the family that Big John met, and still decided to marry into. A year later, we had an addition to the family when mom and Big John had a baby of their own. In a way, our little, ‘Buglet’, pulled us together. But this story’s not about her, or us.
It’s about how a man, who after devoting himself to our country, devoted his life to a woman with seven children, to our family. And as we learned more about what drew our mom to him, we found out that his desire to help others extended beyond our combined home.
Big John was a volunteer fireman in our town, and an active member in the BPO Elks, serving as the Exalted Ruler in the local lodge. He was a good man to all who knew him.
He was our step-dad for longer than my father was my dad, four times as long. He was with me through the years following high school when I was deciding what to do with my life. Helped me go to a trade school, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. Introduced me to slow, odd-looking Swedish cars. I’ve owned six Volvos since then, and was proud to show him every one of them.
When any of us got married and had children of our own, he was the man they knew as grandpa. When we lost the youngest of our original six in a car accident, he was there for our mom. And when we lost our mom to cancer, he was there for us. And we were there for him. Mom took care of all of us, and when she was gone, Big John needed us to help him. He was more than just a step-dad or Big John, as endearing as that nick-name had become. I’m sorry now, that I never said it to him, but he was my dad.
Big John passed away this morning. We’ll miss him in our lives, and keep him in our hearts.
Rest in peace dad.
John J. Kmetz, 04/20/1939 – 02/11/2015.
My first round entry in the 2015 NYC Midnight short story competition. Feel free to comment.
Genre = Drama
Character = A juggler.
Vietnam veterans, Mick and Felix, spend a typical day living on the streets of New York City in the early 1970s.
“Grass—dime bags—loose joints.”
Although well after lunchtime for most of the city’s residents, it was ‘up at the crack of noon, first-thing in the morning’ for the pushers in Washington Square Park.
The buyers and sellers did a brisk business during the final year of John Lindsey’s tenure as New York City’s Mayor. Their dealings were tolerated as long as everyone got a taste. The mobs, dealers, and beat cops all got a piece of the pie.
The park’s residents, bums as they were known in those pre-PC days, who couldn’t afford anywhere else to live, spent their days around the circle of the long-dry fountain. Martha Mumbles talked to herself and the pigeons. Nate the pharmacist held court by the public restrooms. And Vietnam veterans, Mick the tunnel rat, and Felix the sniper, moved as the sun did; shifting their locations to stay in the shade. Always keeping their backs against a wall or fence to, ‘cover their asses’, in case of attack.
They all lived below the line that society set for the lower class. Way below it. These were the cast-offs, the losers in life’s game between the haves and the wish-they-hads. Wish they had a home, had a dry bed, had a warm meal. Their days spent squirrel-like, storing up supplies to get them through the nights.
The sun shed light on the hiding places of the monsters, human and imagined, that would soon be hunting for provisions of their own when darkness shrouded the park.
The vets were sitting in the shadow of the triumphal Washington Arch studying the sidewalk scenery.
Without turning, Mick said to Felix, “Let’s jump on the subway and crash at the old World’s Fair site in Queens, I met a guy who’s got a still like we had back in the Delta.”
Both men had volunteered to fight the Viet Cong. Mick, believing the rhetoric about the domino effect of communism, joined to fight for democracy. Felix chose the war over going to prison for stealing a car in order to run away from his abusive father. The friends met during a tour in the Mekong Delta, where they had learned to survive on C-rations and whatever mind-altering concoctions they could find.
Mick thought Felix’d had it easy when they were in-country.
“Death from afar man.” He’d said. “Line up the crosshairs, squeeze the trigger, and poof, look for the pink mist. Easy-peasy kill. I had to get in there on my belly and find them by touch.”
Felix had acknowledged that Mick had a point, even though he had more kills, more than five times as many, without a doubt those that died by Mick’s knife and modified Model 29 Smith & Wesson, were enemy combatants shimmying through the same dark burrows. Felix’s were judgment calls. Killed from as far as a mile away, a lot of doubt can exist in that distance. Several were children unfortunate enough to have been carrying weapons. Add in Felix’s abuse of substances taken orally and intravenously, and he was never in the mood to belabor the point with his only living friend.
Mick stood. “If we’re getting on the subway, I needs me some anti-bumming meds. I’ll get our rations.”
While Mick headed for Nate’s illicit pharmacy, Felix sat by Martha and helped her feed the flying-rats.
“Hey Martha, you’re looking good. How are your birds this fine morning?”
“’Snot mornin’ fool. Damn near evenin’” She continued to speak under her breath as Felix fed the birds from the bag of crumbs next to the disheveled woman.
“Now, don’t get uptight Martha, I’ve got some bread for you. And it’s not the kind your pigeons would eat.”
Felix pulled a ten-dollar bill from the breast pocket of his drab-green Army jacket and placed it into Martha’s crumb bag. “I had a good month. Buy yourself something pretty.”
The park’s people had a bond stronger than any traditional family. Looking out for each other, each shared what they had in good times, in the hope that someone would have their back in the bad.
Martha snatched the money and looked at Felix. “Don’ tink you’re gettin’ anyting from me for dis. I’m a honorable woman.” Stuffing the cash into her ample cleavage, she returned to her task.
Felix heard a quiet, “tank you,” in her next stream of indecipherable speech.
Mick, his empty hands held open at his sides, approached Nate and said.
“Hello my black brother from another father. I think we had the same Celtic mother. What looks good today?”
“What you say about my mother, cracker?”
“Chill Nate. It’s not like I don’t have black friends. Granted they’re all dead in the mud back in the jungle, but we got along fine when we were together.”
“The hell with you Mick. Playing that, Lucky-Charms leprechaun shit whenever it suits you. You’re as Irish as I am African. You gonna buy or talk? Ain’t got time for your bullshit.”
“Whoa, hold up Nate. I’m just making small talk my friend.”
“I ain’t your brother and I certainly ain’t your friend. So put up or walk away.”
“All right man, I’m just ball-busting, one vet to another.”
“Mick, I served just like you and your degenerate friend over there. At least I make a contribution to society by providing a needed service. You two just feeding off the city’s tit. I don’t take none of that welfare or food-stamp shit. I make my own money, pay my own way.”
“It’s cool Nate, I get it. We appreciate your service to the community. I just need a dime and an eight-ball and I’ll be on my way.”
To anyone passing within earshot, what seemed like a tense confrontation was just the way they had to play it. Man to man trying to make it on the street. Money was swapped for dope, then they shook hands in a soul handshake, the accepted way to show respect to another member of the second society.
Mick signaled to Felix that the deed was done and they walked to the south end of the park. They shared a joint, Mick took a bump of coke, and they descended the steps into the darkness. Even though it had been years since Mick had gone underground in anger and with deadly purpose, he still couldn’t go into a tunnel, even one as large as a subway, without hitching his brain up a few notches.
They reached the bottom of the urine-stained and acrid entrance, jumped the turnstiles and hopped onto the first of several trains they’d need to get to Flushing Meadows. The site of the abandoned 1964 World’s Fair.
They traveled with hippies looking to score in Greenwich Village, and respectable types dressed in their fine clothes heading uptown to the theaters and pricey restaurants of midtown. Only the punk-rockers, heading for CBGBs in the Bowery, dared make eye contact. The others, each in their own way, thought themselves better than those poor dirt-bags, in the worn fatigues.
Their final train emerged above ground as the sun set behind the sky-scrapers of Manhattan. They watched the orange light reflect off the mirrored glass facades of the buildings they would never see the interiors of.
Mick said, “They look so small from here, man, can’t even see the tops when we’re below them. It’s like they’re a painting when we’re far away.”
Felix laughed the way stoners do when something simple strikes them as profound. “That’s really deep Mick my tunnel-rat friend. Profoundly deep.”
They rode their buzz in silence as the buildings and graffiti slid by. The iconic flying-saucer towers drew close as the train rocked and bumped along the tracks. Their destination was a twenty-minute walk from the train platform. Stopping at a corner bodega, they picked up a quart of beer and pint of Jack Daniel’s. As they walked through the busy streets, they were invisible. Their existence in the world ignored.
When they reached the chain link fence surrounding the abandoned landmark, Mick said, “There’s a maintenance shed near the east tower, the guy I met has the still set up there. I met him at the VA hospital when I had to be recertified as unemployable.”
Felix replied. “What, you? I know I got no marketable skills; what use is a long range shooter stateside? Other than, maybe, popping rats in the dumps of Staten Island. But you’re perfect for the underground sewer arts, man. Put you down the pipe with a scrub brush, and you’d clean this town out faster than a Godzilla-sized enema up the ass of Jersey.”
Mick didn’t laugh with Felix, his high was gone.
A subway he could handle, the thought of going into a tight, dark, hole drew him back to Nam. His eyes wide, unfocused on anything near them, his gaze far off into the night, he began to shake.
“Dude.” Felix touched his friend’s shoulder.
He knew that Mick wasn’t in New York anymore, he wasn’t even on the same plane of reality. Felix pried the brown paper bag from Mick’s hand. Losing the beer wouldn’t help their situation, he had to be practical.
“I’m sorry man. Mick, buddy. You’re safe. We’re home.”
Mick came back to Felix, tears rolled down his cheeks. His eyes, already bloodshot from smoking grass, reflected a dark crimson in the final shafts of dusk’s light.
“C’mon Mick, let’s find this party. We got dope, liquor. We’ll try this hooch and see if it’s as good as he says.”
It took the two stoned men an hour to find an opening into the deserted grounds. They walked through a decaying reminder of a government’s wealth spent on a showcase of tomorrow, while the men who served that same nation, lived in squalor.
Passing the twin pinnacles of the observation towers, they spotted a low flame under the Unisphere, the skeletal globe of our planet. A group of a half-dozen men, all dressed in the same tattered remnants of their uniforms, were sitting around a fire in a sawed-off steel drum.
A gruff voice called from beyond the fire, “Hey Mick, glad you could make it.”
Mick said to Felix, “That’s Gunnery Sergeant Bob ‘Gunny’ Baxter. Met him at the VA while I was getting…” Felix cut him off.
“I know man. We been over it a few times. I got it.”
“Gunny, this is the best Scout Sniper to ever pop gooks in the Delta. My friend, Lance Corporal, Felix Bukowski.”
Like a failed Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the group said in unison, “Hello Felix.” And burst out laughing.
Felix nodded, returning the group’s greeting.
They found places around the fire and Felix began rolling a joint as Mick started tapping out lines on a broken piece of glass.
Gunny said, “It’s nice that you didn’t show up empty handed like some jamokes. You want to try some of my Ho Chi Minh hooch?”
Reaching behind him, he pulled a white plastic bleach jug from a duffle bag.
Mick and Felix stared.
The original group laughed. Gunny almost fell off his battered folding chair. “Gets ‘em every time. It’s just the bottle I use. We kept breaking the glass ones. I don’t even rinse them out anymore, the leftover bleach gives it a little extra punch.”
He twisted off the blue top and raised it to his lips. “Death before dishonor boys!” The other men cheered as he took a long pull. He passed it to the man next to him, who repeated the toast to another round of cheers.
Gunny jumped from his seat and said, “Hey. I got a new trick to show you guys.”
As the drink passed amongst the group, each reciting the requisite chant, Gunny fumbled around in the duffle bag.
“I got these from a buddy stationed at Fort Dix. Snagged them from the practice range. Bet’cha you guys didn’t know I could juggle.”
He produced three hand grenades and proceeded to spin them from hand to hand.
With the exception of Mick, the rest of the scared-sober group scattered.
“Ha-ha you motherless bastards.” He continued to juggle them without any apparent effort or concentration. “These are just training pineapples, they’re probably duds.”
He began to work his way around the fire, stepping towards one or another of the group making them jump away. His eyes watching the top of the arc of the objects, he tapped his foot trying to locate the jug. Finding it, he lowered himself into position to pick it up.
Mick hadn’t budged. He sat transfixed on Gunny’s juggling.
Felix shouted, “Dude, don’t be a hero. Get back.”
“Now for my next trick.” In a remarkable display of dexterity for a drunk, Gunny began spinning the three explosives with one hand, throwing them higher into the air than the reach of the light from the campfire. With his free hand, he picked up the bottle.
Several of the men had run for the fence line, the others backed up a safe distance to see what would happen. Living in the open may be dangerous, but at least this was entertaining.
As the bottle reached his lips, there was a hitch in the spinning of the grenades. A momentary stumble as one of them left his hand on the way back up.
The hand holding the jug stopped.
In the split second before the next grenade was caught, Felix saw a glint of silver falling towards the ground.
“Grenade!” Felix shouted as Gunny dropped the hooch and dove back towards his duffle bag.
In quick succession, the grenades hit the ground by Mick. The jug landed on the opposite side of the drum, splashing liquid onto the open flame producing a fireball that shot twenty feet up into the hollow globe above them.
Felix grabbed his friend by the shoulders, tossed him away, and dove belly first onto the grenades.
Nothing happened. No flash. No boom. No guts blasting through the air in a bloody, heroic, end to Felix’s life.
Gunny began to laugh as he looked up from behind his bag. “Ha. Told you chumps they was duds.”
Felix lay still.
Mick eye’s regained focus as he saw Gunny laughing from beyond the fire, then to the grenade’s pin lying on the ground next to Felix. He squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, then rose and walked to help his friend.
Mick helped Felix stand and knock the dirt off his coat. Felix took the whiskey out of his pocket, opened it, and drained the bottle onto the ground.
“Felix. That was heavy, man. You okay? You good?”
“Mick, I’m gooder than I’ve been in a while. Maybe we should talk to those dudes at the VA about getting straight. I think I’m done with this life.”
“Can’t hurt. Gotta be better than a grenade hole through your chest.”
Felix put his arm around Mick’s shoulder. “Yeah dude, sounds like a plan.”