Inner Landscape

Standard

IMG_48680D5D2E48-1

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Howard Jordan sat on the back patio on a cool autumn morning and took a sip of warm, freshly brewed dark roast. He could hear the birds chirping and what remained of the leaves rustling, the two sounds often melding together. Leaning back into the deep wicker chair, it’s fibers crunching as the strands rubbed against one another, Howard propped his feet up on the table, atop a stack of large books on subjects about which he knew nothing. All that mattered to Howard was that they were suitable for elevating his loafered feet to a comfortable position. He held the mug to his face and let the humid fragrance dance up his nostrils.

As he nestled in, Howard wondered what Noel Fullerton’s idea was. Fullerton had commissioned Howard to paint a few pieces in the past and purchased countless others. But when he phoned the night before saying he wanted to commission another work, Fullerton said, “It will likely be the most challenging and frustrating piece you’ve ever done. I believe it has the potential to be incredibly rewarding as well.” What he meant by all that, Howard was unsure. When Howard pressed him, Fullerton insisted he would provide no further details until he met with Howard in person the following morning. So there Howard sat, the following morning, awaiting the arrival of one of America’s great philanthropists and supporters of the arts, anxious to discover what subject would be at once challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.

Behind him, Howard heard his wife moving around in the kitchen and pouring herself a cup from the pot. “Come on out here Sara. I’m just waiting for Fullerton,” he said.

“I’m just putting some sweetener in my coffee, then I’ll be out.”

“I can’t believe you put that poison in your coffee. It ruins the taste, and I hear that substitution stuff is worse than real sugar.”

“I know,” Sara said, settling into the chair next to Howard with a shiver. “Chilly this morning,” she remarked, changing the subject from toxic substances.

“Yeah it’s finally starting to feel like fall out here.”

“Any idea what Fullerton has on his mind?”

“I thought about it all night, and I’ve been thinking about it all morning, which is to say I thought about it instead of sleeping. Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe he wants me to paint a ceiling, like the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t even get him to give me a hint. He said it was important to him that he ask me in person.”

“Sounds like it will be an interesting project. I can tell the unknown intrigues you. To have you up all night, after all these years, that’s something. Well he should be here any minute, so at least you won’t have to wait much longer.”

“Hey Sara?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For sticking with me. I know it’s not easy being married to an… artist,” Howard hated calling himself that. It made him feel like he was boasting, even to his wife. “It isn’t the most structured life. But there’s no way I get to where I am today, figuratively or literally, without you being by my side every step of the way. I don’t say it as often as I should, but I love you more than anything.”

“I love you too Howard. I knew what I was getting into when I married you, just like you knew what you were getting with me! No one should ever wish for an easy life. The most important thing is to be surrounded by the people you love and who love you. We are both very fortunate.”

“Exactly right, Sara,” A ring interrupted their professions. “I think that was the doorbell. Must be Fullerton.”

“I’ll let him in and leave you two to talk shop.”

“Thanks hon.” Sara rubbed Howard’s shoulder lovingly as she slipped back inside and went to open the door.

A moment later, Fullerton’s unmistakable, booming voice rattled through the house and out to Howard in his wicker chair, which shook at the sound, “Hey Sara! Is the maestro in?”

“He’s just out back,” Sara answered,  noticeably softer.

“Howard!” Fullerton said as he walked in and invited himself to be seated.

“Noel. I must say I’m anxious to solve your riddle. What is this piece you want me to paint that’s so special it can’t even be mentioned over the phone?”

“Boy Howard, you don’t mess around do you? No time for weather talk or how’re you doings, huh?” Fullerton replied, “Down to business. Well, it’s something I’ve wanted to talk to you about for a long time. You know we’re setting up that exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, of your landscapes, next year?”

“Yes, I think I might have gotten a phone call or two about it,” Howard joked.

“I felt it would be an important statement, an insight into your mind if you will, if I could commission you to paint on a very personal subject, as a complement to those pieces.”

“And what might that be?”

“Howard, I want to commission you to paint a self-portrait. And before you refuse,” Fullerton put his hand up to quash any reactionary responses. “Please hear me out. I realize you’ve never done one before, and I understand why you haven’t. But consider how much of an impact that could have on people who come to see your work. You are unquestionably one of the most influential artists of the last fifty years if not more, and you’ve changed the entire idea of what people believe is possible, and not just in art frankly. I’m not exaggerating. You know me well enough to know I’m a straight shooter.”

“Noel, I just don’t know about doing a self-portrait.”

“People want to know how you see yourself. All I’m asking is for you to think about it, Howard. As I said, it will be very trying, but I think you’d be surprised how rewarding it could be for you and for countless others.”

“Alright, Noel. I’ll consider it.”

“Thank you Howard. You know how to reach me,” Fullerton said standing up. “Take your time to think it over. In keeping with your philosophy, now that I’ve said my mind, I’ll leave you and Sara to enjoy the day.” To that Howard simply nodded his head and returned to his coffee as Fullerton let himself out the front.

“I heard what he said…” Sara said stepping back onto the patio.

“Yeah.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Think about it. I owe him that much after all he’s done for my career. I suppose he’s right too. It could have an impact on some people. Can we go for a walk?”

“Of course, let me grab your shoes and coat.”

Howard felt for the table and set down his coffee, carefully to be sure none of it spilled, as he sat up. He stood and stretched as he let out a sigh and walked through the kitchen.

“I’m just at the door Howard. I’ve got your coat and shoes.”

“Thanks Sara.” Sara guided Howard into his tennis shoes and jacket, and they headed out the door. She threaded her arm through his and hugged it tightly. “You know Sara you’re more than just my wife, you really are my better half.” Sara didn’t answer but Howard imagined she was smiling, which made him happy. She guided him down the steps one at a time, serving as his wife and his better half, as she’d always done and would always do.

Advertisements

Yours in Time

Standard

IMG_3331

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Alicia stood at the water’s edge, the occasional tail of a broken wave sending cool water between her toes. She held a small round shell in her hand, rubbing the sand off with her thumb and forefinger as she looked out on the layered atmosphere. The only visitor as far as her eyes could see was a seagull gliding on the ocean breeze like a distant kite. Once Alicia no longer felt the coarse grains, and her fingers slid along the ridges of the shell without interruption, she tossed and caught it a few times, keeping her focus on a buoy jostling with the current far away. She waited for the white of the next wave to form, and then skipped the shell across the surface towards her marker. It kicked up in the air when it made contact with the crest before falling behind with a plop. Satisfied, Alicia wiggled her toes and tensed at the slight pricks from bits of crushed shells.

She ran her hands along her smooth thighs while the wind picked up and filled her linen shirt like a sheet drying on the line. When Alicia turned her head a mess of her hazelnut hair cut across her face. She quickly flicked it back and out of the way. With a full breath of the salty-sweet sea air, she turned and walked along the shoreline, a thick forest of palm trees to her right, the clear water folding to her left, and nothing but pristine white ahead. She had the island cove all to herself and was attempting to use the opportunity to think of ideas for her next play, walking without urgency. Tucked into her front pocket was a pen and small moleskin notebook where she recorded the intermittent flashes of lightning in her brainstorm.

Alicia noticed something glistening in the sand and shifted her course a few degrees to investigate. When she arrived at her destination, she found the neck of a green beer bottle. She could tell it had been there for a time because it had transfigured to sea glass, the strong sheen weathered away by passing sand and the ebb and flow of the tides. Alicia bent over and pulled at the lip, expecting it only to be a broken piece, but was surprised to find a fully intact vessel. Alicia dumped out what had accumulated inside. She smiled as an idea crossed her mind. Perhaps she was just the hopeless romantic everyone seemed to think: the idea of putting a message in the bottle was too tempting to avoid.

Alicia sat down on the warm, shifting ground, which hugged her legs welcomingly, and pulled out her notebook, its leather a little damp from sea spray. Looking to the cotton ball clouds in the sky for inspiration, Alicia thought of what to write. She clicked her pen and introduced it to the tip of her tongue as she opened to a fresh page.

“Dear Wanderer,” she started. “I’m writing this message from a different time and a different place. I don’t know you, but if you’re reading this I feel you must be a romantic like me. Take a minute to look around you and appreciate what you have, for each moment is as fleeting as the wind, and like each breeze, it is precious. Yours in time, Alicia, March 1st 2015.”

As she finished signing her name, Alicia took care to separate the page from the journal. She rolled the paper and sent it into the mouth of the bottle as she stood up, brushing off the sand that clung to her skin. She looked around for something to cap the container with, noticing the spent cork of enjoyed Bordeaux within reach. With a few taps from the base of her palm, Alicia secured the stopper, preserving the capsule until it reached its unknown person and time. She made her way back to the edge and waded out until the salt water seeped into the white fabric of her button-down. She gave a last look to the hazy green glass, her note tucked safely within, and then threw it as far as she could, beyond the push of the current, with the maritime postal service stamping the parcel with a splash.

Alicia watched the neck of the bottle bobbing away for a few minutes before losing it behind some ripples and then continued her aimless trek along the beach. Her mind wandered through a labyrinth of themes, time periods, and storylines. She caught a glimpse of high tea in Elizabethan England, bombshells exploding on the shores of Normandy, and young lovers sharing a laugh at a tapas bar in turn-of-the-century Madrid. Her stream of consciousness ran at its own pace, speeding and slowing at irregular intervals. For a time she got so lost in her imagination, she no longer saw the beach in front of her or the ocean and palm trees to either side. It was as if she was watching a montage of what her play could be but without the guidance of what it should be. Alicia scribbled bits and pieces of her thoughts, a scrambled alphabet soup in a code only she could decipher. But nothing original seemed to materialize.

The whirlwind came to an end, as it always did, and thrust her back to the present. A few more seagulls joined her and were warming their pipes like a barbershop quartet with laryngitis. Ahead of her a bent palm tree reached out like an arm from the dense foliage, its fronds swaying with the whistling wind. The scene was restorative after the hurricane in her mind ran its course. Further down the beach where the shore bent outwardly, there was a man tending to a small boat, propped up atop a few logs. As she got closer she watched him push it to the water and over the break of the waves. He hopped aboard, propelling the boat forward with powerful strokes of an oar.

A stronger swell took Alicia off guard as it crashed up against her legs and sprayed her up to her waist. As the water receded, the color from the sand drained slowly after. A crab scampered across the whitening surface and stopped a few feet from Alicia. She could see its eyes, fixed at the end of small antennae, looking her over as its claws opened and closed, snapping like Spanish castanets. Assessing Alicia to be a threat, the crab sidestepped its way back onto dry ground and gave her one last look before diving into its hole.

When Alicia’s gaze returned to the shoreline, she saw a green bottle wash up in front of her. She recognized instantly that it was the bottle she had thrown in earlier. Seeing it again so soon made her laugh. With a sigh she picked it up from the wet ground, some of the thick sea foam still clinging to the bottom. Slightly resigned from her failed attempt, with a shake of her head she pulled the cork out using greater effort than expected. She flipped the bottle and knocked out the curled paper. As she unrolled it, she looked at her watch: noon. Looking back to the message, a strange feeling came over her and she flashed back at the timepiece. Alicia realized she had lost track of time, noon coming as not much of a surprise, but a different marker of time’s passage was indeed very strange. Upon closer inspection she confirmed what her quick glance had revealed: March 1st, 2065.

Alicia’s eyes, wide with alarm, moved from the face of the watch to her hands, littered with the lines defining a long life. Her hair was no longer the familiar nutty color, but was instead a soft white like the earth surrounding her. Alicia looked down at her legs, their formerly toned shape more relaxed, with a few straggling streaks of blue veins. In disbelief she dropped the bottle. Then with shaking hands, she opened the letter and saw the words, the handwriting faded and warped from condensation over decades: “Dear Wanderer, I’m writing this message from a different time and a different place. I don’t know you, but if you’re reading this I feel you must be a romantic like me. Take a minute to look around you and appreciate what you have, for each moment is as fleeting as the wind, and like each breeze, it is precious. Yours in time, Alicia, March 1st 2015.”

Suddenly a flood of scenes came crashing through her head like a tidal wave, missed and forgotten moments from the past fifty years of her life, remembered in an instant. Every clip flew by, unfamiliar, as if she were remembering some other person’s life. The words of the message churned over and over unrelentingly in her head as if it were trying to become butter, as she stood breathless, the water washing over her feet: “each moment is as fleeting as the wind.” Suddenly such a wind picked up, shaking the palm trees, and forming small ridges across the surface of the water as her hair blew into her face again. When she cleared the tangle strewn across her eyes, the message was torn from her hand and thrown into the sea. Alicia watched as the paper floated on the surface before it soaked up the salt water and disappeared from view. For a while she stood, staring out across the water, wondering how she’d let decades of precious moments slip away like unappreciated breezes, her own message unheeded. Alicia looked back at her watch, 12:05, March 1st 2015. Frantically she gave herself a look-over to find everything as it was before: young and colorful. She pulled out her notebook and wrote with haste the outline for her next play.

Lot 7

Standard

IMG_3309

The warm rays of the morning were appearing in the distance beyond the small farm as Sam Fulton loaded the last batch of fresh tomatoes on the bed of his pickup. He looked at the multitude red fruits, organized between the neat grid formed by the white, wooden crates and thought about the hard work that went into producing the crop. The year had followed suit from every year of the previous decade in the unforgiving nature of farming conditions, but this time he prevailed. He felt fortunate to have been able to fill even one box, let alone a whole truckload. None of Sam’s neighbors in the small town of Millbrook had been similarly blessed.

Sam pulled a folded green tarp from behind the driver’s seat and spread it across the bed, fastening it to the wall in several places to keep its weight off the crop. As he tightened the last bit of rope through the small brass ring of the covering and tied it, his wife called out from the porch, “Sam, come inside and have some breakfast before you leave!”

Sam looked at his watch and computed the time from the placement of the hour and minute hands, fuzzy in the low light with his fading vision: 5:05AM. He needed to get his truckload to the city by 8:00 at the latest, so he figured he had about thirty minutes, factoring in the always unpredictable city traffic.

“I’ll be right in, Alicia. But I’ve got to hit the road around 5:30,” he answered after his minute of deliberation.

“That’s fine, I’ve already made your toast and coffee. You can eat it as fast as you want, but you need to eat before you go.”

“Alright,” Sam said wiping the dust off his hands and onto his jeans, worn soft from years of solid use. He stomped his shoes on the mat by the door, checking the soles for straggling mud before entering. Sam knew he would never hear the end of it if he tracked anything inside the day after Alicia finished cleaning the whole house, so he opted to slip the work shoes off and leave them. Alicia gave only a quick glance to his feet when he walked into the kitchen, but Sam could tell in that instant she was pleased with his decision.

On the table was his simple breakfast, burnt toast with generously applied butter and a cup of coffee so black it could easily have been confused with Texas Tea.

“What do you think you can get for it?” Alicia asked as Sam took a sip from the still smoldering coffee.

“It’s impossible to say, really. But I think it could be significant. Tom told me a few days ago he was optimistic,” Sam responded before biting into the toast with a loud crunch.

“Well, that’s good. Lord knows we need it.”

Sam finished his breakfast as Alicia gave him the rundown on her schedule for the day, “I’m going to stay home from work today because I’ve scheduled everyone to come to the house. The plumber, cable man, and the HVAC guy are all coming at different times. You know they give ranges on their arrival that are like three-hour spans, so who knows when each will get here and how long it will take them. I just decided it was better to get it all done in one day, so I’ll be here when you get back from the city.”

“Sounds like a good idea. Always better to kill as many birds as you can with that stone,” Sam responded, knocking back the last sip of coffee and rising to take his dishes to the sink.

“Here, let me get those,” Alicia said, taking the platewear from her husband so he could wash his hands. “I guess it’s better to wash them after you eat instead of never…”

Sam smiled and rolled his eyes as he dried his hands on the red and white, checkered hand towel.

“Did you save some for us?” Alicia asked.

“I set a few bunches in a basket on the porch. Treat em nice, won’t you?” he replied with a wink.

Alicia leaned in to steal a goodbye kiss from her husband before he headed back outside and into the glaring sun, fully developed by that time and sitting just atop Dutchess County. He climbed into the truck and jimmied the key to get the engine to start, which was something he never took for granted. Sam pointed to the heavens in thanks, a habit of his since the odometer passed the 300,000-mile mark, as he pulled away from the house with Alicia waving from the stoop.

Sam drove on, out of the area’s agricultural land and into the town’s rolling acreage of green grass dotted with quaint colonial homes and more-than-respectable estates. It was quiet as usual for that time of day, so Sam enjoyed the tranquility of the open road and the soft roar of the engine. He put down the windows to invite the comforting hush of fresh air, which he much preferred to anything the radio could produce, as he pulled past the “Welcome to the Village of Millbrook” sign and headed south on 82 toward the city.

The traffic picked up with the Manhattan skyline just coming into view through the haze, causing Sam to sit idle in the truck. At first he was unfazed by the lethargic and intermittent movement of the mass of cars, but as the clock ticked beyond 7:30 he got increasingly frustrated. The only thing he could do was tap his foot anxiously against the heavy plastic mat and hope the gridlock would soon break. When it finally did, Sam noticed the culprit: the back doors of a furniture delivery truck had flung open and donated to the road everything necessary to furnish a cozy family room or a classically cramped studio. He sped up after passing the scene and was deep into Manhattan by around 7:45, behind his preferred schedule but still on time.

Sam pulled up to the back of the building and a man came out to the curb to greet him.

“Morning Sam,” he said, leaning in the truck window as he ran his fingers across his forehead and through his long, dark hair.

“Hey Tom, sorry I cut it so close. There was furniture all over the Parkway,” said Sam.

“Furniture?” Tom asked with an appropriate measure of confusion folded on his brow.

“Yeah the back doors of a delivery truck gave way, and the stuff was everywhere.”

“Well good thing you left when you did at any rate. It’s not a problem. We still have enough time. By the way how much were you able to put together?”

“I filled the bed with a single layer of crates. I’ve got seven rows of five, so there are thirty-five in there that are all full. Each probably weighs about twenty pounds.”

“I won’t believe it till I lay my eyes on em! Let’s take a look,” Tom said as Sam hopped out of the truck and began untying the tarp.

“Crop looks real good Tom, I’ll tell ya,” he said peeling back the covering to reveal the ripe red passengers glistening with their slight condensation.

“Wow Sam, I could almost cry. Tomatoes like this… I haven’t seen any in a long time,” Tom answered in a cloud of nostalgia.

“Well, I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t use the money. Things have been running pretty tight.”

“Yeah, I know it, Sam. Well let’s get all these crates inside. It’s five till eight already. Come on boys,” Tom said calling a few of his coworkers to assist them in moving the cargo into the building. The men worked quickly, and by eight o’clock the last of the tomatoes were inside and Sam’s truck bed was back to being an empty steel shell, the folded green tarp its only accent.

“Thanks again Sam. I’ll give you a call as soon as they sell and let you know,” Tom said extending his hand to Sam’s.

Sam gave Tom the kind of hearty handshake that speaks to genuine trust and replied, “Thank you, Tom. Alicia and I would love to have you and Sally over for dinner this weekend if you’re free.”

“We’d love that, Sam. I’ll give Sally a ring to double-check. When I call you about the crop, I’ll let you know. Take care.”

“Sounds good Tom,” Sam answered as he put the car in gear and began the journey back to Millbrook, hoping the return trip would be more fluid. Tom walked back inside the building and counted the crates to make sure all thirty-five were together and accounted for. He picked up a bunch with five juicy tomatoes hanging gingerly from a supple vine, and took a strong sniff of the fresh, crisp smell. He placed the bunch back down with care and quickly examined the rest of the collection. To his great satisfaction, all of the tomatoes looked similarly perfect.

“Tom, give me the one that looks the best,” a man, dressed in a tailored, navy-blue suit said entering from the hallway. Tom scanned the boxes and selected the one that fit the bill.

“Are they up?” Tom asked.

“They’re next,” the suit responded as he disappeared back down the hall. The man waited in the doorway situated off to the side of the stage where there stood an even more formal gentleman at a podium with a gavel.

“Next is Lot 7, fresh tomatoes from a small farm in Millbrook up in Dutchess County,” he said motioning for the man to bring the example to the stage. After the crate was set on the pedestal he continued, “Christie’s is pleased to bring you the these tomatoes, the first available at auction in New York in ten years. Not only are these exceedingly rare, but they are also some of the finest tomatoes you’ll ever see.” The energy level in the room picked as if its occupants had been shot with epinephrine. “We have thirty-five crates, which represent the entire crop for the season. If you want tomatoes, this is the only chance you will have to purchase them. Let’s start the bidding at $15,000 per crate,” he said, causing all the paddles in the room to shoot up eagerly.

Chocolat Cake

Standard

IMG_3280

“Rachel, I just can’t get over that cake you made. It was so delicious!”

“That cake was a hit, Rachel. Did you see how quickly it disappeared? I may or may not have been responsible for three of those pieces!”

“It’s amazing how much better this party was with your dessert. I feel like it really livened everyone up, don’t you?”

“Normally I crash after eating a dessert this rich, but I feel like I could run a marathon now.”

“The recipe… I don’t want it; I need it!”

The unanimous reaction to my most recent creation was positive. It was nice to get a sense of what famous chefs must experience on a regular basis. I’ve never found the supply of accolades directed towards me to be superfluous, so while they were certainly there in volume, I could have done with a few more. My friends were nearly bouncing off the proverbial walls, much to my satisfaction. Though I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to baking, I understand ingredients. That is to say I’m aware of how ingredients affect people. A sprinkle of this or a teaspoon of that can be the difference between, “that’s delicious,” and, “that’s interesting.” The most potent elements can make or break a dish; so careful implementation is essential.

“What do you call your cake?”

“Hadn’t thought about it. How about Chocolat Cake?” I answered.

Oui! French! Very chic!” Maddie was almost screaming.

“I have to know, Rachel, what is the secret to your recipe?” Christine asked.

“Coke,” I replied matter-of-factly.

“Oh I’ve heard of using Coke in cakes, but I’ve never tried it myself! I’m not adventurous enough. Now that I know how good it is though I’ll have to make it for my kids!” Kate exclaimed.

“I guess only parents really know what’s good for their children,” I replied.

I had a good feeling that people would enjoy the cake, but I was sure the secret ingredient would shock them. It hadn’t. As a matter of fact they seemed even more excited when I revealed it. Unlike when a magician divulges his or her sleight of hand causing belief in magic to evaporate, when I showed my hand I furthered my célébrité. Even Kate, since when was so open-minded? Kate was correct in her self-classification. She is likely the most unadventurous of all my friends, but the excitement with which she spoke edged on unrealistic. All judgment aside, of one thing I am absolutely certain: it was the first time any of them ever had cocaine.

Paris on Holiday

Standard

IMG_3247

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Bill pulled his forest-green, ‘99 Camry lopsidedly into one of the numerous free spaces in front of the Trumbull strip mall. The lot was nearly empty, surprisingly so even for a Wednesday night. He switched off the engine and wiggled the key from the ignition. Bill looked up in the rearview mirror from behind his thick, black, Clark Kent frames, a tuft of his silvery gray hair curling on his forehead, and winked at his reflection. The condition of the polished man who emerged from the car was a stark contrast to the condition of the vehicle. Bill wore charcoal slacks and a tailored hound’s tooth jacket with reasonably thin lapels. His black necktie was fastened perfectly to his crisp white shirt by a silver clip and his loafers were soft from use. If it were still the 1960s, he’d easily have been mistaken for Dick Van Dyke arriving at the set to film the next episode with Mary Tyler Moore. But as it was 2004, he was simply a well-groomed senior citizen.

He approached the Athena Cinematheque’s small ticket counter, with its glass opaque from sun and deferred maintenance. The operation housed three screens that each sat thirty, uncomfortably, but usually entertained less than ten, with moderate comfort. Nestled between a family-run grocery store and a watch repair shop, the Athena’s façade was decorated in a cheap and fading, but undoubtedly charming, Grecian Art Deco style. When it was built in the 1980s it was meant to mimic the themed movie palaces of yesteryear, the name to evoke a similar sentiment. The Athena ran independent, limited release films on two of the screens and rolled through a large library of classics on the third. At any given time there were between one and two people working, and on that night they were at full staff.

“Good evening sir,” the teenager manning the booth said through the shower drain.

“Hey, I’d like one ticket to the 7:15 ‘Paris on Holiday,’” Bill replied.

“That’ll be $6.50.”

Bill pulled out his thin bifold of supple calfskin tucked into his inner breast pocket. He handed the boy a ten-dollar bill prompting him to fish through the disorganized cash drawer.

“Sold many tickets to this showing?” Bill asked.

“You’re the first,” the kid said sliding the ticket and the $3.50 change back through the small watermelon-shaped opening. “Movie starts in just a few minutes, so you may be the only one sir,” he added.

“Thanks,” Bill said pressing his lips tightly together and nodding. He pulled open the heavy glass door and approached the snack counter under the management of the other half of the night’s staff. “I’ll take a small popcorn and a Coke.”

“Do you want butter on your popcorn?” the man asked.

“Oh,” Bill said looking over the equipment and finding the pump labeled “butter.” The image fastened to the side turned his stomach against the idea. “No thank you.”

“And did you want regular Coke, Diet Coke, or Coke Zero?”

Bill furrowed his brow overwhelmed by a further follow-up to his seemingly straightforward request. “Just a regular Coke will be fine, thank you.”

“Have you seen ‘Paris on Holiday’ before?” the man asked.

“Just once, when it came out, all the way back in ’59.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy it tonight. We just got that print in the other week; a friend of mine who works at the Film Foundation sent it over. It’s a copy of a new restoration they just finished for the 45th anniversary.”

“Forty… fifth…” Bill mumbled to himself. “I can’t believe it’s been that long.”

“They aren’t lying when they say time flies,” the man joked back.

Bill chuckled under his breathe. He collected his concessions and entered the dark hallway of theater 3, its door bearing a taped piece of computer paper that read, “Paris on Holiday (1959).” Bill looked through the collection of empty seats in the dimly lit room for the one that looked emptiest, back row center. When he sat down, the padded chair unfolded noisily, creaking the way his grandfather’s rusted supply shed doors used to. For a whispering second he remembered his grandfather the way he had known him best, sitting in his leather chair, scotch and soda in hand. It was nearly half a century since he’d seen the man, but the image materialized in vivid Technicolor for the brief moment it hung around.

As his memory faded out, the projector flickered on, and the lights dulled. After a bit of crackling and some bright spots, Bill heard the film begin to pull through the machine with fluidity, and a majestic peak reared its head against the vibrant powder-blue backdrop of the sky. “A Paramount Picture” materialized as the clouds rambled behind.

The opening credits rolled, giving top billing to the film’s stars, William Cooper and Joan Andrews, and transitioning to the opening scene as, “Directed By Edward Fairfield,” faded out. Bill took a satisfying sip of his regular Coke and shifted his weight on the cushion until he was content, right leg crossed snugly over left. The film was a classic of its genre, a paragon of the romantic globetrotting comedies of the 50s and 60s with two of the period’s most adored stars. Cooper played an architect stressed out to the point of being hostile and withdrawn. Andrews played his gorgeous wife, unimaginatively employed as an advertising secretary. The story began with her convincing her husband, with great effort and antics, to agree to a holiday in Paris. Just as it had so many decades ago, the picture transported Bill from the couple’s nondescript home in suburban Chicago to the picturesque and bustling streets of the “City of Lights.”

It took the first half of the movie for Cooper’s character to thaw from his thick, frigid shell under the intensifying heat of Andrews’ charm. Ultimately the two danced and fell in love all over again under the glow of the Champs-Élysées. Shots filmed on location were mixed heterogeneously with those of the Eiffel Tower and traffic of the green screen. The wind blew perfectly in the strawberry blonde hair of the actress as the actor drove a convertible down the street, an impossibly close Notre Dame Cathedral ringing in the background. Innocent and light-hearted moments like ice cream melting from cones onto their clothes, Cooper knowingly overpaying for flowers and newspapers, and their battles with French cuisine were all montaged together to the lively song carrying the film’s title.

Bill was so engrossed in the simple if not simplistic plot, that his unbuttered popcorn went untouched. He laughed when the characters laughed, felt his feet tap along with the music, and even neared tears at the more emotional moments, even if they were only skin deep. It was a fine example of escaping in escapist fashion. For the two hours the film ran, Bill forgot all about the 21st century and rediscovered the golden era, the better days of his youth. At the end, William Cooper took Joan Andrews forcefully in his arms and uttered the famous line, “Paris… what a cliché!” before planting a kiss on her lips. When the final credits rolled, Bill refused to return to reality. He stayed and ate his popcorn as he watched until the very last name was shown and the projector powered down, returning the lights to their original intensity. He brushed the salt off his fingers and onto his pants as he stood up, the chair recoiling to its resting position with a shriek. Bill felt markedly lighter of foot as he practically danced back through the short hallway.

“Enjoy the film?” the man who’d sold him the concessions asked, sweeping the floor.

“Very much so. It felt almost like I was back in 1959 and right up there with them.”

“Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Have a good night.”

“Goodnight,” Bill answered as he went back out into the night. He climbed into the Camry and sat with his hands on the wheel, motionless. Bill turned on the overhead light and reached into his pocket for his wallet. He drew out his license and held it gingerly, appreciating the strong smile he’d worn when the picture was taken a few years earlier. As he brushed his thumb over his name he thought back to his past life, before he became just Bill. They were exciting years, those long ago and far away. He wondered when the last time was that someone recognized him or shouted to him, back when he was known as William Cooper.

“Hey, Mitch,” the man sweeping said, stealing the kid’s attention from his phone.

“Yeah?”

“That guy, he had sort of a familiar face didn’t he? I feel like I know him from something.”

“I’ve never seen him before,” Mitch answered, his eyes falling back to his screen.

The man looked up from the broom for a moment and then shook his head, dismissing his idea with a laugh. Outside, William Cooper drove his forest-green, ‘99 Camry out of the lot and back into his life as Bill.

Binghamton Mine

Standard

IMG_3212

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The whistle sounded at noon on the dot to signal lunch, two miles below the surface in the Binghamton Mine. The continuous coal machine screeched to a halt as the operator powered it down. The handful of workers in the far section of the mine set down their tools and walked to the end of the line where the train waited for them. As they walked the only source of light in the dark abyss came from their headlamps, their beams bouncing off the reflective tape on their suits. They hunched over to keep from hitting their heads on the low ceiling.

No one spoke as they piled in the roofless train, the only sounds were of the coal in the walls popping and cracking under the immense pressure of the ground weighing down upon it. The train operator turned on the engine and it began the fifteen-minute haul back up to the lift. Its engine churned and the wheels clapped against the rail as it wound its way through the vast network of caves and tunnels. Coal dust filled the air in a fine haze like the black mist of forest fires. The miners joined in a cacophony of coughs and wheezes, the thick mucus of their throats adding a guttural weight that spoke to years of inhalation of coarse particulate matter.

The train slowed to a jerking stop at the origin of the tracks just a few feet from the lift, lit brightly by industrial lights on stands. One of the senior workmen pulled open the heavy metal door, and his coworkers piled in, packed like sardines in a matchbox.

“Lamps off,” he said, a dim sadness coloring his words as the room went pitch black with the clicks. With a jolt the elevator started its trip up through the millenniums of rocks and minerals. Each man stood quietly, some with eyes closed, others simply in a malaise. Only seconds after a vague light entered from the shaft above, the lift crashed to a stop and the doors slid open. The brightness of the gloomy day assaulted their eyes. The older workers squinted and managed the transition with experience, but the younger men covered their black smeared faces with their hands.

It was Ben’s first day working in the Binghamton Mine, and only his second full day in Binghamton. Somehow he felt even more alone back on the surface than he did tucked away deep in the manmade cave. From his designated locker he pulled out his lunch pail and his thermos and set them down on the only remaining empty table. He found the sink and stopped over to wash his hands and face, which proved to merely be a waste of water. When Ben returned he found the table full around his lunch.

“Have a seat kid,” one of the men said. “Break may be an hour but you only get twenty minutes to eat. That hour is on the clock once the whistle blows.” Ben sat down and mouthed hello to the group as he unhinged the lock and pulled out his tinfoil wrapped peanut butter and jelly.

“You must be one of the new kids? My name’s Charlie, and these here are Alan and Mr. Dodge,” the man continued. Ben just nodded in recognition so Charlie added, “You have a name?”

“Ben,” he answered.

“You talk too much, Ben,” Mr. Dodge said as he took a bite from his sandwich. There was a brief pause, and Ben wasn’t sure how to react. The three men broke out in laughter sprinkled with horse coughs. Ben smiled as Mr. Dodge patted him heartily on the back. “Lighten up Ben, it’s too dark around here.”

“Yes sir,” Ben answered with a smile.

“What brings you to O Little Town of Binghamton?” Charlie asked sarcastically.

“I got in a bit of trouble back home and my parents sent me out here to ‘reform’ me,” Ben said employing air quotes.

“So whereabouts were you thrown from?” Charlie asked.

“Pittsburgh.”

“Jesus. That’s not much better than here,” Mr. Dodge said seriously.

“I wanted to get out of there, and I figured out the most exciting way to get that to happen was to make some trouble. Besides I wanted to know what it was like here. I heard stories,” Ben added.

“Did you do any mining back there? I noticed you didn’t hardly need any instruction this morning,” Alan asked before taking a sip of Diet Coke.

“Yeah, after I finished high school I started in a mine, worked a little less than a year before I was shipped here. I just got in two days ago.”

“What do you think so far?” Charlie asked.

“It’s… different here. I guess it’s a little early to say much more than that,” Ben said.

The men nodded in agreement as they continued to pick away at their lunches and enjoy their time above ground. A curt toot from the whistle indicated the men would need to return to the lift in five minutes to start the trip back to the Binghamton underworld. The sound was met with sighs of discontent.

Ben wondered if Charlie, Alan, or Mr. Dodge remembered what they looked like beneath the layers of grime painted heavily on their faces. He wondered if they even bothered to clean themselves anymore. Mining might be the kind of work that puts hair on a man’s chest, Ben thought, but it also makes him feel as though it was growing in his lungs. Even at nineteen, the work was taxing on Ben, and he knew as time went by it would become impossible to differentiate night from day, his dreams filling with what awaited him in the waking hours.

“Hey Charlie,” Alan said getting his attention, “how bout one of your jokes before we head down?”

“I’ve got one. A man who was recently divorced meets his friend at the bar for a beer, and his friend asks him, ‘What’s the difference between being married and being divorced?’” Charlie paused as the men looked to him anxiously. “And his friend answers, ‘I wanted to get married, I needed to get divorced!’”

When Charlie reached the punch line he broke out into laughter and Alan and Mr. Dodge followed suit. Ben snickered at the joke but recognized he was too young to fully appreciate its message. But seeing the men chuckling together, who were to that point more somber than he, lightened Ben’s spirit. Ben understood the good a joke could do for guys stuck in a place like Binghamton, and he was glad for the reprieve.

Then the whistle gave two blows. The train was ready to descend. Ben and his tablemates closed up their lunch pales, tightened their thermoses, and rose to return their belongings to their lockers.

“You know, Ben, it can get awful lonely out here. Why don’t you join my wife Betty and I for dinner tonight?” Charlie asked.

“Thanks, Charlie. I’d really enjoy that.”

“Betty’s a great cook. In fact, if I’m being truthful, she’s the best damn cook on the whole planet, and good food is near impossible to find around here.”

“I look forward to it,” Ben answered as they climbed into the elevator once more.

The doors shut and a man called out, “Lamps on.” The men obliged. Through the slits in the door, Ben saw a storm brewing far off in the muggy, clay-colored sky. As the elevator descended, a strong gust blew by and kicked up a cloud of red dust, covering the billboard for the Martian Mining Corporation before everything around him went dark.

El Capitan

Standard
IMG_3196

artwork by @lylahrose

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Monica secured her right hand on a lip of the granite face and moved her feet, gloved in thin climbing shoes wrapped generously with rubber soles, until they too reached satisfactory resting places. Feeling relatively comfortable, she released her left hand and twisted her body away to see the valley filled with its thick carpet of foliage below, where the meandering rocks and cliffs used the changing sunlight to throw shadow puppets. In the hour since the sun moved on from The Nose, her selected route on El Capitan, she hadn’t had a chance to appreciate the performance, and at that moment the sight relaxed her.

Monica concentrated on her pulse, bringing down the palpitations by controlling her breathing. Facing the rock in front of her, its age lines snaking unpredictably, subdued hues melding together from countless bouts with the environment, Monica closed her eyes and cleaned the busy slate of her mind. She tried to block out the sensation that her entire body was engulfed in flames, her muscles calling for respite, and she stopped listening to the screaming tendons in her fingers. It was the only way to keep going up.

Once she successfully tuned out the pain, Monica conjured up an image she had perfected through weeks of visualization. She imagined herself atop El Capitan, hands fixed on her hips, her chest rising and falling rhythmically as her lungs welcomed in and said pleasant goodbyes to breaths of accomplishment. From behind her sunglasses, falling just shy of the sweat-saturated bandana around her head, Monica opened her eyes with renewed confidence.

Monica reached into the nylon pouch of chalk powder clipped firmly to her belt-loop and coated each hand in succession. Her position was a familiar one, but one that she had failed to progress past on all previous tries. Earlier, with the kind of bull-headed confidence that often proved fatal, Monica decided, against the advice of her peers, to make a free solo attempt. She hoped the real and present possibility of death, more tangible than ever before, would propel her beyond her limitations.

El Capitan did not make the trip easy for the bold, carefully selecting only the worthy to conquer it. To Monica, the more the odds stacked against her, the greater the appeal. She was an adventurer through and through, and irrational decision-making was a key tenant of her life-model.

The outcrop hanging just a few feet beyond Monica’s grasp, previously stimulating tremendous angst within her, stirred up a drive. The feeling pleasantly surprised her, like reaching for a glass of gin and instead tasting the refreshment of glacial water. She moved her right foot into a small niche like a puzzle piece, and relocated her left to a scarcely noticeable notch. As she straightened her legs her body unfurled, making her look more like an inchworm than an agile climber.

To her side Monica noticed a patch of the dark lichen that littered the stone façade, and in that spot she saw an image of herself caught in a fatal free-fall, its realism unsettling. It was like an organic Rorschach test playing devilishly with her imagination. But it’s just moss, she told herself, nothing more. Shaking her head, she erased the image and extended upward for the quarter-sized hold just within reach. Her next move came naturally and unconsciously, moving her ever closer to her granite Achilles heel.

Her right foot progressed without trouble, but the shelf upon which she placed her left turned to a rubble, causing her leg to drop and forcing her to dig in to her three remaining anchor points. Monica let out a cry that pooled frustration and desperation as she found another place for her dangling leg. The cry was the first instance that reminded her she had no lifeline. Normally, she was able to calm herself by looking at the hex clamps, threaded by a rope attached snugly to her harness, which would catch her if she fell. But there were no hexes, no ropes, no harness, no safety. If she made a mistake like that again she would become the falling woman in the lichen.

Monica knew her greatest chance of survival stemmed from her ability to focus. So she dug into her reserve of concentration and eyed the ledge. She found solid footing a few inches higher and hugged her weight against The Nose. The lone way forward was to find a hold, latch on, and hang suspended almost 3,000 feet above the earth until she could grip with her other hand. Warning signals called out from every part of her body begging her not to continue, but she knew the sole option was up.

Monica bit her bottom lip and yelled, “Come on!” With the sum of her might she heaved her hand at the ledge and found a sill on which to clasp. Like a Christmas ornament placed precariously near the end of a branch she hung, her weight supported by a single limb. Quickly she flung her other hand to the same height, her fingers scraping and searching for something to grab, but it slipped.

Though in real-time only a fraction of a second, like Wile E. Coyote after the ground beneath him vanished, Monica hung motionless, completely unattached to anything but the air around her. She noticed her hands, mere centimeters from the ledge, though effectively miles away. As she fell she watched the ethereal clouds brushing the crystal blue sky above and the majestic face of the cliff, standing more kingly than ever before.

Connecting with the ground was not as painful as Monica had imagined, it felt almost like landing on a soft hotel bed.

“Ah Monica! You almost had it that time!” a man wearing a Cali Climbing Co. t-shirt said, extending his hand to help her off the padded blue mat. Monica looked at the tin ceiling, sighed, and grabbed the man’s hand as he pulled her up from her vivid fantasy.