End of the Year

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artwork by @jameswyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“You’re afraid of water? How is that even possible? You mean you never like take a shower?” Maddox joked to the amusement of the boys huddled around.

“I told you, I’m not afraid of water; I just can’t go near chlorine,” David answered defensively with cheeks reddening.

“Sounds like you’re just scared to take your shirt off in front of the girls,” Andrew added.

“Maddox, Andrew, leave David alone,” warned Victoria.

“Oh, David looks like you have a bodyguard, and it’s a girl!” Maddox said, getting a rise  out of the audience once more.

“David, don’t listen to him. He’s just being a jerk.” Victoria added before returning to the girls clumped on the other side of the pool. Keeping with long-standing tradition, as the kids trickled in, dropped off by lucky parents to leave under the attention of the unlucky ones, the boys and girls self divided. Bridging the gap between the two gender-specific camps were the plastic tables covered in a hodgepodge of nachos, cookies, pretzels, sodas, and an optimistic bowl of salad. A large yellow cake sat in the center, prepared and decorated by the local grocery store in blue Crisco frosting which read, “Congratulations to the 3rd Grade Class of 2010!”

Though neither the parents nor the children believed that completing the 3rd grade was a monumental accomplishment, it was proper procedure to hold an end of the year pool party. It suited both the children and their parents. On the one hand, the boys looked forward to showing off what a week of push-ups could do to their physiques, and the girls enjoyed wearing new swimsuits and beating the boys at virtually every game. On the other hand, the parents who stayed could gripe about the struggles with teachers and administration from that year, and the parents who left could enjoy time without their kids. The adults watched the group of forty or so by delegating control to the lifeguards, grabbing a few beers, and eating the children’s snacks.

Each year there was one boy more eager than the rest who would tear off his shirt and cannonball into the pool, encouraging the others to join. Inevitably they would, moving in units of friend groups, until nearly everyone was splashing in the water like an excited gaggle of geese. As he was the previous summer, the year’s attention grabber was Eric Jackson, a slightly hefty, moppy-headed boy who was more goofball than cannonball as he jumped into the water.

“Let’s go! Come on guys!” he said flailing his arms around. He spoke only to the boys, playing the game of tactful disregard for the other half of the grade. The actions of 3rd grade boys and girls were chess-like, only each side was blind to the moves of the other. As a result, laughably awkward moments were the rule of every day.

It took a quarter of an hour for the boys to make it into the pool, every boy except David, and Freddy, who didn’t have a problem with chlorine he was just more interested in talking about the recent actions of the Fed with George’s dad. A few outspoken girls threw themselves into the mix early on, but the rest laid out on lounge chairs to tan with indifference.

Victoria laid back with her mother’s sunglasses, too big for her face, but stylish, which made her confident. On either side of her were the class’s second and third most popular girls, collectively forming a power clique. While she did enjoy the attention that came with her position, Victoria was a kind person and wasn’t afraid to let her true colors shine. She turned her head out of the direct sunlight and saw David sitting by himself, watching his classmates engaged in every manner of boisterous nonsense.

“I’ll be back,” she said to her companions who continued to readjust uncomfortably in chairs engineered for adult-sized bodies.

“OK,” they responded in unison.

Victoria pried herself away, plastic strips clinging to her legs. David didn’t notice her traveling in his direction. He was lost in thought. It had not been an easy transition for David, coming to a new school where everyone else had been together since kindergarten. It was especially difficult to make that jump into 3rd grade, when hormones were starting to play games with young minds and bodies, and low self-confidence was often medicated with teasing and practical jokes.

“Hey David,” Victoria said.

David looked up to see her, and blood involuntarily shot back up into his cheeks.

“Oh, hey Victoria,” he responded unsteadily.

“Can I sit with you?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Victoria took a seat, and the two sat quietly. David searched for something clever to say, while Victoria waited for him to say it. Time passed slowly, and Victoria could sense his discomfort.

“So, have you ever been in a pool?” she asked, breaking the stalemate.

“Once, when I was a lot younger, but I don’t remember it. My mom says I’m allergic to chlorine. I’ve been in the ocean a lot though. I do like swimming.”

“That sucks. What are you going to do here?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even want to come, but my mom had some work thing, and she said it was better if I went to this party than to her office.”

“My parents work a lot too, but it wasn’t as bad before they got divorced. Do you like it here?” she asked with the kind of abrupt transition unachievable in adulthood.

“It’s ok, but there isn’t a lot to do if you can’t get in the pool.”

“Oh no, I meant like here in town and at St. Andrew’s. Is it better than where you used to go?”

“Oh,” David said with a hint of embarrassment. “It’s fine. We move around a lot. It’s just my mom and I. It’s usually just easier if I don’t make friends.”

“That’s sad. Life is a lot better when you have friends to be with.”

“You’re lucky. Everyone likes you.”

“Well that’s true. The part about me being lucky. I don’t think everyone likes me. They just act like it. Sometimes I think being like you is better.”

“What? Why would you want to be like me?”

“Actually, to be honest that isn’t what I meant. It’s that I sort of, well, I like you David. You’re a good guy.” Now it was Victoria who blushed and turned her head toward the concrete deck. David smiled lopsidedly as her words sunk in. They both stayed that way, looking at the ground for a few seconds before Victoria gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

“Thanks,” David said and immediately questioned himself for doing so.

“You’re welcome,” Victoria answered with equal discomfort.

At the deep end of the pool, where the rest of their class was engaged in a heated game of sharks and minnows, Maddox looked up just in time to see Victoria and David’s poolside exchange. He’d been keeping an eye on Victoria since he arrived at the party, and for most of the year leading up to it. His strategy had been one of shock and awe, using every chance he got to show off and appear superior to the other boys. Maddox’s hope was that Victoria would come after him. His theory was based on the mid-century principle that the tough guy was never supposed to go after the girl. He had to make her come to him. But it hadn’t worked, and as he watched her with David that realization finally started to set in.

“Maddox, what are you doing? They’re all making it across!” Alex cried out.

Maddox ignored him and climbed up the ladder, being sure to flex his microscopic biceps as he pulled himself out. He made a decision, then and there, that if Victoria didn’t want to be with him, he didn’t want her to be with anyone. Hormones hit Maddox like a breakfast tidal wave, early and hard.

“Allergic to chlorine… ha!” Maddox mumbled as he neared David and Victoria, his body still dripping wet. “Get up!” he commanded.

“Maddox, leave-”

“No Victoria. I’m talking to your boyfriend. Come on, get up David! I want to race you to the other end of the pool.”

“I told you, Maddox; I can’t go in.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re allergic to chlorine. You know what I think? I think you just made that up. Who ever heard of someone that’s allergic to chlorine?”

“You know, bullying me isn’t going to get people to respect you,” David said matter-of-factly with unappreciated maturity.

“What do you know? You don’t have any friends!” Maddox barked back. By now the entire class was watching the exchange with great interest. Maddox could feel the spotlight on him, and he used the opportunity to seize David’s arm and pull him to his feet. “Alright, we’ll do this the hard way then!”

“Maddox, please stop,” David pleaded. “You’re going to regret this.”

But Maddox didn’t relent. He dragged David with him to the edge of the deep end.

“First one to the other side wins! Here I’ll give you a head start!” he said pushing David over the edge with a shove at his back. Maddox jumped in a split second after and started to swim toward the other end. He was so focused on winning that he didn’t pay attention to what was going on around him. By the time he got to the other wall and turned around, everyone else had cleared out. They were all huddled by the poolside in shock. Some of the kids even covered their faces, peeking through gaps in their fingers.

“Maddox, get out of the pool!” yelled a boy frantically. “Get out, hurry!” But Maddox was too caught up in his victory to understand what all the excitement was about. He just hung onto the side and looked confused as he scanned the pool for David. Maddox couldn’t find him anywhere, but something caught his eye a few yards away. There was a fin cutting through the water and moving fast in his direction. He didn’t have enough time to react, let alone get to safety.

“He turned into a shark!” someone screeched.

All Maddox could do was close his eyes and let out a shrill scream as he braced for impact. Every part of his body tensed up in anticipation, but nothing happened. Maddox listened but all he could hear was heavy laughter in surround sound, and he slowly peeled his eyes open to see David wading in the water with a plastic shark fin strapped to his head, grinning ear to ear.

“I guess I outgrew my chlorine allergy. Found this at the bottom of the pool,” David said pulling the fin off. “I didn’t know you were afraid of sharks. I also didn’t know you scream like a baby, but I guess everyone knows now. Bullies don’t win.”

Maddox was shaking with shame. He took a deep breath and dipped his head under, hoping that everyone would be gone by the time he resurfaced.

 

Final Stretch

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artwork by @jameswyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Entering the last turn I was in fourth, my legs churning underneath me with confidence in their training. I didn’t bother to flash a glance to the side or behind; I knew no one in my wake had any crumb of a chance. My attention remained on the three to my fore. Recognizing the exertion in their movement, and seeing each of their breaths as labors painfully borne, I knew my best option was to hold steady.

Coming out of the bend, I waited in anticipation for the proper moment to strike. I sensed a growing weakness and a loss of pace in the one in third and pushed harder to overtake. With my eyes beaming forward, only two left to pass, the distance to the finish line teased out like salt-water taffy. My competition seemed to launch ahead impossibly. I found myself locked in a tunnel, all light fading around the track ahead. The thousands of faces watching with hopeful energy dissolved into the bitter, mounting darkness. Flashes of cameras formed constellations dotting the void.

The final stretch is always the hardest. Time slowed achingly. I felt my lungs swell, and my heart was a metronome keeping irregular time. Latching my awareness solely to those two life-giving processes, I reached deep and drew out my last reserve of strength. Fire jolted into my legs like a shot of adrenaline.

I approached from the outside, my opponents fighting each other desperately, nose-to-nose. Darting pupils registered my attack. The end lay ahead of us like the virgin sands of unmapped islands, inviting one among us to be the first to step ashore. Only two strides remained, and I propelled through them with every remaining iota of strength. I lunged my head forward, seeking that crucial extra millimeter to propel me to triumph. A flash of the bulb signaled the end of the contest.

As the brightness dissolved away, the slowness gave way to rapid progression, and the faces reappeared amid a hurricane of applause. The race was over with no clear result as I let up. Unease drew itself like a sheet over the stadium in anticipation.

“Whatever happens, you ran one helluva race,” fell softly on my ears, in company with a few strong pats on my back. A passing minute later, the photo appeared to a resurgence of screams. A victor had been declared. A taut blow of the horn introduced the announcement.

“What an incredible race!” called a voice emphatically. “The photo-finish showed that the winner of the 145th Rosewood Stakes, is… Churchgate!”

With the sound of my name I made my way confidently toward the stands, a stunning wreath of red roses held high, eagerly awaiting a chance to don my shoulders. As we approached the winner’s circle, my jockey bent forward and kissed my neck. It was a job well done, deserving I thought, of a heap of sugar cubes.

The Lottery Saved My Life

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artwork by @jameswyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“What do you mean by that, exactly?” the woman asked incredulously.

“The lottery saved my life,” Meyer replied, solidifying his statement with the concrete of repetition.

“Again, what do you mean? I heard what you said,” she took a sip of her martini. The olive rolled around the bottom of the vessel where it settled and would remain untouched.

“It’s a bit of a long story, Ms…?”

“Ms. Nothing I’m not a divorcee. My name’s Ida.”

“That’s an interesting name,” Meyer replied, half truthfully. A change of subject was on his mind.

“Not much more than Meyer.” The bartender approached Ida, but she was done drinking. Ida was interested in hearing how the lottery could, with such dramatic emphasis, “save,” a man’s life. She’d only heard of vast sums of money deposited in accounts overnight ruining people’s lives, driving them mad either with the burden of fortune or the carelessness that is so often served with excess. Meyer had a darkness in his eyes. Ida could sense his was a long story she wanted to hear. It was a tale her readers would be anxious to consume

“Well you’ve got me there. You may want another one of those. It’s that kind of story.”

“Why don’t you just start, you know, at the beginning? That’s what we usually say.”

“In that case, I’ll have one for us. Another rye Manhattan,” Meyer said raising a finger and swirling the remnants. The liquid was mostly clear now, ice the only inhabitant recognizable without chemical testing. “You know you could say a Manhattan is an island drink. Of course, only technically. Are you one for technicalities?”

Ida said nothing, hoping he would delve into his tale of lottery salvation. For a multimillionaire, Meyer dressed simply, business casual, in the way of old Wall Street, before tech vests were the uniform of choice. If she’d sized him up on her own, she’d have guessed commodities trader: intelligent, understated, and private.

“So the beginning…” Meyer sensed the time for stalling expired. “I’m an accountant. Well I was anyhow, for about fifteen years. I got a job right out of school and hated it, but I figured that’s just what being a college-educated adult was all about. Save your self-pity for the birds and all that. There was a clear track for me, promotion wise, compensation wise. I was making enough money not to complain, except over coffee with old friends.” Meyer bent over and took up the cuffs of his chinos another roll. He’d been in between on the appearance three versus four curls presented, and ultimately, as his story was just starting through the dry background, he changed his mind.

“Sorry,” Meyer said, taking a sip of the fresh Manhattan. He gave a look of contemplation, as though the taste of the drink validated his comment on technicality. Maybe the Manhattan is an island drink. “Anyway,” Meyer started again as though much time had passed, as though uncontrollable distractions had put the story on hold long enough for Ida to forget what he had been saying. “Blah blah blah, accounting. Let’s just say the bottom line was, I was content, which is a colorful euphemism for unhappy. I was never a gambling man, not even a betting man save for a few gentlemen’s wagers and the occasional exchange of six packs for football games. I wouldn’t call myself sheepish, but perhaps I am endowed with a certain… reticence.”

“That’s a generous way to call yourself timid. For a numbers man, you have a way with words.” Ida was toying with the charm on her silver necklace, sliding it along the gossamer thin chain links.

“I had an English minor. Just wanted a twist of pretension.”

“Like rye in your island drink?”

Meyer laughed a decidedly sporting laugh. “Touché. Well me being as I’ve described, I was never going to quit, not without something else lined up. And because I was too nervous to pursue other jobs, I wasn’t going to leave. Not in my lifetime. So I did what any rational, statistically proficient, diploma holding individual would do. I went to the grocery store and bought a lottery ticket.”

“Did you pick the numbers or were they random?” It might have seemed a horribly pedestrian question. What after all did it matter? But Ida was interested in anecdotal data. Those tidbits were gobbled up by the readers, the deflating topics of most comment streams.

“They were computer selected,” Meyer replied. Evidently he’d put a lot of thought into the decision. Accounting brought some considerations to the insanity. “I only bought one. I have a fate complex.”

“Oh I think we all do, if we’re honest with ourselves.”

“I guess I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. Truth be told I forced it out of my mind, because as long as I didn’t check to see if I won, there was still a chance I had. Don’t check and you can’t lose, right?”

“I see the logic.”

“The drawing happened, and a few days went by. I genuinely forgot. Accounting has an amazing ability to block out everything in your life with meaning and drown you in tedium. Then I saw a blurb in the news, that the winning ticket had been sold not just in my state, not just in my city, but at the very store I’d purchased mine. Well even over endless excel sheets that’s a hard set of details to ignore.” Meyer paused for a laugh that never came. “So I left work that afternoon a little early, and I sat at my desk with the ticket stored in a drawer, unseen, and so still viable.”

“Naturally.”

“Then I looked. And that was that. I won. Four hundred and twenty-two million dollars, roughly, after Uncle Sam. I didn’t go in to work the next day. Even with that much money I didn’t have the courage to quit my job, so I let my job come to me. My boss called after three or four days. It was three days, I don’t know why I said that just now. Of course I kept track. I never skipped work. And only then, over the phone no less, I cut the cord. I told him I was done with it all, and don’t mind about the two weeks. I thought fifteen years was enough notice. I expected, well hoped anyway, he would be at least a little mad but I think he was glad my salary and benefits were no longer on his budget. They were just going to replace me for less with a younger model.”

“May I just ask something?” Ida interjected.

“Please,” Meyer replied, welcoming the break.

“Well it’s just, you said the lottery saved your life, but other than being one of the countless victims of complacency, it doesn’t sound like you needed saving? You weren’t terminally ill were you?”

“No, nothing like that. I claimed my winnings. I never bothered to collect my things from my office. I’d just as soon have them throw it all in the garbage or donate it to an accountant charity. That’s what I thought over the weekend anyhow. Come Monday my tendencies returned, and I figured I’d better go in that afternoon and get my stuff, say goodbye to the select few whose company I didn’t detest. I was going to go too, except that I turned on the news, really just to see the weather. I wanted to know if I needed a rain jacket. That was October 19th.”

Ida’s face dropped, the life escaping air from a pinpricked balloon. “You were an accountant…”

“Yes.”

“At… CDG?”

Meyer read the young woman’s morbid expression. “I take it you understand now?”

“That whole building… No one survived the attack. Hundreds of people died that day.”

“No one survived that went to work that Monday. And I had perfect attendance in my tenure. It seems no great prosperity comes without cost. Sure, I won the lottery. I lived, and I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. But I will always feel I should have been in that building. It will haunt me forever. As it should. I keep the ticket with me, so the memory never strays. I think what I said earlier, that should be the title of this story when your magazine prints it: The Lottery Saved My Life. It has a dark poetic quality, Edgar Allen Poeish.”

Hard Diet

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artwork by @jameswyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

As Marsha stepped into the kitchen it was pitch black, the world outside a shade darker. Only a small, weak light hung in the distance, glowing like an apparition. Marsha flipped the switch and a bright blur greeted her. It was a surprisingly modern kitchen with a bold mixture of black slate countertops and brushed steel appliances. Marsha remembered why she woke up, and the return of hunger was accompanied by the realization she wasn’t in her home. Everything was too neat, the room like something she saw in Architectural Digest, decidedly not her doing. She felt a sharp pain in her head. The events of the previous night were fuzzy. The lack of clarity did not strike Marsha as particularly positive, but until the details bubbled through she decided to withhold judgment.

Marsha opened the refrigerator and was more surprised than disappointed to find it completely empty. With frustration, she closed the door, which clicked as it sucked tight to ensure the emptiness maintained a cool temperature. Marsha moved on to the matte, charcoal cabinets. The kitchen quickly developed an unwelcome reputation as a barren wasteland. In a frenzy, Marsha frantically opened all the cabinets and drawers to find each carefully stocked with empty space.

She slapped her hands on the island and let out an exasperated breath. In a change of pace, Marsha noticed how beautifully her nails were manicured, each coated in a deep maroon and shaped with mechanical perfection. As her eyes worked their way up, she saw on each wrist a thin, black bracelet. She was wearing a dress, a nice piece with large green and white stripes, cut mid-thigh and devoid of wrinkles. Marsha saw her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling windows facing out from the kitchen and concluded that no one had ever looked better the morning after a hazy night. Having begun to view her situation with a better perspective, Marsha revisited her mission to discover food. Scanning the room for anything with that elusive edible quality, her eyes stumbled upon a bowl of bright Granny Smith apples on the opposite end of the island.

With considerably less elegance than her appearance would suggest, Marsha lunged at the bowl and plucked one of the green orbs from the steel container. Like a thirsty desert wanderer handed water for the first time in days, she held the apple near her mouth but couldn’t quite bring herself to take a bite. Recognizing the humor in her restraint, Marsha proceeded to sink her teeth into the fruit, closing her eyes so she could focus on the sweet taste of its juice. Instead she recoiled as her tastebuds were denied what they so strongly desired. She was grasping an apple severely lacking in that most desirable quality of her search: edibility. Pulling the hard sphere from her mouth, Marsha noticed the wood grains circling the object.

All Marsha could do was shake her head, feeling lucky her teeth had not jumped ship. She reached out to place the apple back in its position as object d’art, but her arm froze. Marsha was overwhelmed with a feeling of paralysis. Outside the kitchen, rows of lights lining the sky turned on in succession. A man was walking down the street, headed right in her direction. Standing there as if locked in place, Marsha watched the man move closer and closer. As he neared the windows, Marsha squinted. Her heart stopped, and she felt as though she’d turned to stone, everything about her world falling back into place. Her mind went blank when she saw the patch on the man’s shirt: Powell’s Home Department. And there she stood inanimate, another mannequin in one of the countless displays.

No-Call

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artwork by @jameswyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Each step was a beat of an unsynchronized drum, the sound dissociated from the contact of Ray’s feet against the inundated pavement littered with rain-filled seams. Now there was only a sprinkle. His $59.95 analog from Cyber Monday ticked as though the secondhand was working to push time forward.

There was a crash behind, but Ray fought the instinctual urge to jerk his head. Eyes watched from all directions like owls branched in the night. Trying to hide, he tightened the arc of his baseball cap and dipped the bill down to cover his face.

His car, a lusterless silver, seemed to reverse and back away slowly, matching the pace of his gait to remain forever in the distance. Ray wished he were home in bed, away from the atmosphere closing in around him.

“Tst, tst, tst,” their calls were like cicada barks from behind branches and leaves, thoraxes and delicate claws camouflaged by foliage.

“Slow down!” came a voice through the cloud of tongue-to-teeth clicking.

The parking lot was nearly devoid of cars, but a mass of people formed a mob in Ray’s trail, a storm cloud barreling with unquestionable intent. To turn around, to acknowledge the source, was to accept his fate. Ray was not ready to throw in the towel.

“You know what you did!” Ray recognized the kid’s voice. It was woven with tentativeness, as though the words were someone else’s. “Got nothing to say for yourself? Doesn’t matter to you. But this is my life! You ruined my life, man.” In the last statement Ray detected real anguish. “Hey, I’m talking to you! Answer me!”

Ray, his car still backing tauntingly, could not restrain himself any longer. The sprinkle reached more of a trickle in his tracks. His toes in mesh-covered shoes dampened. “It was nothing personal, kid.” Ray said, adding, “kid” to deaden the blow, but it was patronizing. He tilted his head to his shoulder like a parrot inspecting its feathers. “I’m human, just like you.”

“Just like me? You don’t know a damn thing about me, or what I been through! How I got here, how hard I worked. And just like that,” he said with a snap, “you ended it all. So don’t tell me you like me. You no human; you a rat! How much they pay you, rat?”

Ray’s mouth opened to defend his honor, and his guts twisted. He always prayed these moments would never come. So much for prayers, Ray thought with post-middle-aged cynicism.

“Why don’t you turn around and look at me, rat?” Each time the kid said “rat” it stung. Ray had been chewed out before, too many times to count, but this was different. This was a kid.

Ray realized he was never going to make it to his car. When he turned all he saw were the reflections in their eyes, a constellation of paired clusters. Above them all, two north stars in the sea of glaring sparkles, were the kid’s eyes. The singular street lamp lighted Ray like a statue, bugs whizzing in a cloud, feeding off the scarce brightness. “I—“ Ray started to say.

“Boo!” thundered the crowd, “Boo!” Ray could barely hear himself think, let along the whistles through the thick chants of displeasure.

“Ray! Are you sure?” another official asked when they congregated on the sideline.

“Looked like he got his arm on the way up,” Ray replied.

“I gotta be honest, Ray, I didn’t see anything. He was trying to sell it.”

“Yeah, from my angle it was a no-call,” the referees were screaming to make themselves heard from inches away.

“Ray, this could be the championship. If you’re sure, they’re on the line. But you gotta be sure. This place is gonna explode if the other team wins on the foul line.”

Ray considered the merits of his colleague’s comments. “We can’t let them decide this. They want that kid to win because he’s the next Zion. But that’s not how we call games.”

“I know, Ray, but we’re both seeing it as a no-call. You want to swim against that stream? It’s on you.”

“They’ll eat you alive, Ray. This is a no-call.”

Ray closed his eyes. He went deaf to the roar of outcries of “you suck!” and “go to hell!” He imagined he was walking outside, after the game ended and the championship was decided. Each step was a beat of an unsynchronized drum, the sound dissociated from the contact of Ray’s feet against the inundated pavement littered with rain-filled seams. Now there was only a sprinkle. His $59.95 analog from Cyber Monday ticked as though the secondhand was working to push time forward.

“Hey Ray! We need an answer,” one of the officials demanded.

Ray returned to the fold and went to the middle of the court where he summoned a shriek from his whistle. “There is… no foul call on the shot. It was an inadvertent whistle. Time expired on the play. The game is over.” He barely got the words out before the stadium erupted, the court flooded by fans hoisting the star-recruit on their shoulders with the trophy in hand. As Ray walked back to his car that night there was no presence behind him. He answered his own prayer.

Miguelito

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@jameswyngaarden

“Miguelito! Miguelito! Miguelito!” The cheers thundered from the highest seats to the lowest with equal fervor. Las Ventas, the cathedral of bullfighting, had a full congregation for its Saturday evening service. No seat was absent a body; even those less enviable in the sun were occupied. The matador, Miguel Rosales, known affectionately as Miguelito across the Spanish landscape, held out his arms, scarlet muleta in hand, basking in the encouragement. Several paces behind him stood the thundering bull in the center of the ring, kicking the dirt beneath its hooves as a match strikes its box. Though its skin was wet with maroon blood, six banderillas of white and blue hooked into its back and flapping as the beast shook, the bull remained decidedly majestic.

Miguelito reached over the burgundy, wood-paneled wall and handed the aluminum sword to his younger brother, Rodrigo. In return, Rodrigo gave his brother the true weapon. Thin, shimmering, and deathly sharp, it was made of tempered steel met with a small handle matching the color of the muleta.

“Godspeed,” Rodrigo said as they made the exchange, his message heard only by Miguelito through the buzz of the crowd. Miguelito smiled back confidently. He removed his hat, with its two distinctive ears, covered in black karakul fur and lined with purple velvet. Miguelito peered in at the postage-stamp image of San Quirico fastened to the side. He brushed his finger across the icon as he looked up. Miguelito stepped to another section of the wall and called out, “Padre Roman!”

A man seated just behind the railing stood up, dressed in black, the white collar of his commitment to the faith standing out like a beacon. He nodded with a big grin to Miguelito, whom he had known as the mischievous child of Beatrice and Francisco in the small municipality of Cambados. Padre Roman had been the priest of the parish in the small Galician town of Vilariño for several decades, and it was by personal invitation of Miguelito that he made the journey to Las Ventas that night.

“Para ti, Padre!” Miguelito yelled as he tossed his hat gently like a glass Frisbee to the priest, who caught it to great applause. Padre Roman motioned a sign of the cross in Miguelito’s direction: a small blessing to help him in the moment of truth. Miguelito bowed and turned to face the bull, its muscles rippling as it took short but powerful steps in place. The horn sounded, indicating the matador had three minutes remaining to emerge victorious from the challenge.

Miguelito stood clothed in his brilliant outfit of lush purple with gold embroidery so extensive it had no clear beginning or end. The beads sewn tightly to the fabric glistened like a suit of stars. His pants, skin tight and of the same lavish constitution, highlighted his flawless physic. Staring down the bulging beast and stifling the unshakable fear of his own demise, Miguelito was Hercules facing the Nemean Lion, sword in his right hand cloaked in the swatch of crimson fabric.

The bull walked with slow, deliberate steps toward him. There was still an impressive vitality in the spirit of the animal that humbled Miguelito but also sharpened his focus on the task at hand. Its came to a stop a few meters from him, hooves scratching at the white chalk line that encircled the ring, as it looked Miguelito up and down with the embers of the crackling fire in its eyes still glowing brightly. It pointed its two black-tipped horns at the man who had led it in a dance with capes, unaware that beneath the cloth hid the object ordained to deliver its fate.

A spiritual silence fell upon the coliseum with a hush like the rustling of a wheat field in a warm, summer breeze. Miguelito inched his way toward the bull until he could feel the warm dampness of its billowing breaths. He slowly drew the sword and matched the tip of the blade with the point on which his eyes were fixed. As he held the sword with the stillness of a surgeon with his scalpel, Miguelito gently waved the muleta at his knees, drawing the bull’s gaze down. Miguelito turned his feet, wrapped in black leather pumps, toward the animal. He shifted his left foot forward, rising to his toes and bending at the knee as he took a deep, calming breath before lunging forward. In the same lighting-fast instant, the bull pounced from its stance toward Miguelito as the blade entered its back between thundering shoulder blades until all that could be seen was the small handle.

Miguelito jumped out of the way, his death-defying act completed as he thrust his hand in celebration. He let his arm fall by his side as the crowd erupted in a deafening ovation.

“Are you going to eat it now?” a woman’s voice blared through the excitement.

“What?” Miguelito answered.

“Michael, why don’t you take the knife out of your steak and put your napkin down. I think it is time you stop playing with your food. People are watching you, though I’m sure they were all impressed with your performance.”

Michael reluctantly pulled the knife from his filet and laid the red napkin across his lap, looking around to see the faces at nearby tables staring at him amusedly. He gave a few bows of his head in recognition of their attention before returning his gaze to his wife seated across the table with arms crossed. As his knife cut through the juicy red steak like butter, he looked longingly at the bullfighting photographs lining the walls of the small bodega, nestled down a side street in Madrid, and his time as Miguelito the great matador faded back into the far reaches of his imagination.

The Last Monk of Laboche

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@babyboyjw c.2019

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Light poured in, the misting stream of an impossibly high waterfall from the mail slot window above. As it flowed, it caught the dust suspended in the air, moving about with no clear direction, resulting in solid beams, which stroked the floor. Other than the fine particles the shrine was resting, no sounds, not a whisper from the foreboding gilded statute seated at the front, clothed in thick garments of embroidered blue and umber silk, its irises burning of the pure turquoise watering far off Caribbean islands. On the plaster walls innumerable figures, painted vividly generations before by the practiced hands, held their poses. Some bore expressions of power, some of horror, of astonishment, of fear, of love, and of peaceful meditation.

Around edges where walls turned to the vaulted ceiling of rough-hewn logs was hung a parade of tapestries adorned with the likenesses of supervising lamas of Laboche’s past. Their procession outlined the long history of the monastery, and if an eye followed the circumference of the room, the timeline provided the illusion the place had existed forever, no first lama, no last. Two large drums of green sheepskin, thinned in the centers from ceremonial pounding, stood guarding the heavy entrance doors. The wooden floor, its rolling topography smooth and blurrily reflective like brackish ponds, was lined with rows of short platforms. Atop sat humble red cushions prepared to receive the weight of the monks’ devotions.

The room gave off the impression it was a great host who spent the night tidying and was now ready to welcome its guests. A weak smell of previously burned incense lingered like a dried bouquet of spices, hitching onto the laden air and dissipating accordingly. Smoke no longer drifted from the golden bowl beneath the statute, the sticks had turned to a black ash that even a gentle breeze might stir like a dance in a macabre snow globe. The only perfections in the room of worship were its imperfections, the twisting supports with their jagged angles dovetailed with complementary pieces to create a strength that defied the tenants of architecture. All elements fit together, melting away the divides.

Through the sliver of a space between the carved, black doors, crept in the crackling buzz of the horn signaling the day had officially begun in the citadel. Warblings grew from a trickling grumble to a full-bodied roar as young Mazu warmed up his lungs with the instrument. Mazu’s call rose with the sun as it climbed confidently over the sails of snow-capped mountain-peak hulls. High in the clouds, Laboche was isolated from the nearest hamlet by more than 100 kilometers. At its inception, if in fact it had not grown with the mountains in a natural process, the place was chosen for its strategic perch, where the likelihood of disturbance was found to be immeasurably low.

With much softer creaks than its size might suggest Mazu pulled the door open by the hefty brass handle, having been touched so many times it felt like a dolphins slippery skin. In so doing, the sun flooded the room and the myriad sacred figurines along with the silvery thread of tapestries sparkled metallically. The gradually waking space had suddenly been shot with the life of its own spirit.

Even at his meager height, Mazu had to hunch over to avoid knocking his shaved head against the unforgiving doorframes. It was a lesson learned the hard way, as most had been in the earliest days of a life lived in solemn dedication. Mazu placed his hands together and bowed in reverence as he stepped onto the cold floor with thick-callused feet. Like a mouse sensing he was being watched, he slowly and methodically made his way to the back corner of the room by walking along the wall lined with rolled up carpets, their white fringe frayed but tucked neatly beneath the cloth logs they resembled.

From the ground he picked up the hand broom: thirty or so thin, rigid, moderately pliable sticks tied together by a coiled rope resembling the falling tail of a racehorse. Bending at the waist, Mazu began the daily task of dusting the prayer space. Using short strokes, taking conscientious care to ensure all refuse was accounted for, Mazu made his way in a weaving pattern past the wall-hangings and down the rows of seats.

Little had accumulated, moved into a small hump by the door, as daily care prohibited it. The dirt that did not make it into the pile was donated to the air around him, further matter in which the rays could disperse. After sweeping out the remaining crooks, Mazu let out a sigh that revealed his loneliness. Once a lively place of eighty or so monks, moving from one place to the next in maroon robes like rolling cranberries, Laboche’s last remaining resident was Mazu. One by one the monks fell ill before their spirits left them. It had been a few months since Zhang died, the last person to whom Mazu spoke. It seemed ironic that the monastery’s youngest and oldest monks were the only to survive the incomprehensible plight. Mazu too wished he could disappear, and while he often thought of venturing out of Laboche, his strict loyalty and adherence to tradition kept him wedded to his location.

He went about the rest of the day as he always did. He prayed when it was the prescribed hour, cooked his meals when he was supposed to, tended the small farm, and spent time copying from the ancient scrolls housed in the library. He could join only himself in prayer, dine with the table for company, harvest the vegetables for his own stores, and present the new scrolls for only his eyes to appreciate. As the days went by Mazu allowed himself to reflect more and more on his life. He wondered what the world was like outside of Laboche. He had only vague memories of his brief time before, or were they dreams? Mazu was no longer able to differentiate. All he knew how to do was carry on his responsibilities.

It was clear to him that he was alone in his tasks, and it seemed a wasted hope to think he would ever come across another person again. But deep inside there was a part of him that still clung close, as a mother and newborn child, to the possibility that one day he would again meet someone. After all, it would have been too much for Mazu to bear if he knew the truth: that he was not only the last monk of Laboche, he was the last human on Earth.