Away From It All

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“Drew and I have talked about getting away from it all for a while, but it’s always been a sort of, hypothetical trip. Sure you can go to Bora Bora or the Maldives or the Seychelles, and you’ll be away from almost everything.”

Mindy pushed the wilted greens to the side of her plate.

“But you’ve been talking about the Maldives forever. Why all the sudden don’t you want to go there now?” Tisha asked.

“No, not all the sudden. Like I said, Drew and I have been discussing this for a while. And he made some good points about how the Maldives and the Seychelles and whatever, they’re just not far enough away. They still have Wi-Fi and hotels, obviously,” said Mindy.

“Let me get this straight. You, you are willingly going to a place where you can’t post?”

“Yes, Tisha. It’s not that hard to understand. Honestly. There’s no people there. How could there be Internet if there aren’t any people? That’s why these kinds of places are called uninhibited islands.”

“You mean uninhabited?” asked Tisha.

“No, don’t be stupid. I think I’d know what I’m talking about. Where’s that over-gelled waiter? I want that panna cotta. They aren’t going to have nice food or anything out there. So I better stock up now. I’m sure I’ll lose a ton of weight eating fish and… leaves or whatever we eat. Maybe I’ll come back looking like you, but hopefully I have some muscle on my body so I don’t look like a skeleton.”

Tisha squeezed the knife handle, and set it down slowly.

“OK, so then where are you going that’s ‘uninhibited?’” Tisha asked.

“That’s where it gets wild! I can’t tell you. I don’t even know! Drew found this island on some old map. You know how weird he is with history and stuff. I can’t believe his first marriage lasted as long as it did. I told him when we got married that he only had me for five years. I want to still be hot when we get divorced. Maybe I’ll even have a kid then. I don’t want my kids to look like Drew. And with the prenup I make out really good, so there’s no need to like give him a son or anything. I told you he thinks we’re ‘trying.’ Well anyway, the island doesn’t even show up on Google Earth, and that has pictures of literally every inch of the planet. Except Area 51 and North Korea.”

“Mindy, that’s insane. What if something happens? You’re in a place that isn’t on maps?”

Mindy’s silver band was inlayed with a price-upon-request diamond. It flashed when she reached for her wine. Tisha rubbed her much smaller ring with her knuckle. For weeks she took it off before going to see Mindy. Tisha didn’t want to hear her patronize. She felt out of place enough just going to the restaurants or to Mindy’s house.

“Oh Tisha, that’s so cute that you care, but nothing’s going to happen to us. Drew chartered a boat to take us to these coordinates and pick us up. It’s just a couple weeks. Plus Drew knows how to do survival things. His dad was in the Army something. And listen Drew’s paying that captain a fortune, so he’ll be sure we get there and back safely.”

“Take pictures at least. Sounds like it’s going to be a real experience,” Tisha said.

But there was nothing she hated more than seeing Mindy’s pictures of her tour of France or Argentina. The stories were boring: luxury hotels and five-course meals. It was getting harder and harder for Tisha to hold the weight of their friendship. Mindy hadn’t always been like that. The only reason she didn’t drop Tisha when she married Drew was because Tisha didn’t fight back. Tisha was Mindy’s punching bag.

“Tisha, I already told you I won’t have Wi-Fi, so I obviously can’t post.”

“No I know that, but just pictures you can show when you get back.”

“Tisha. No Instagram. Honestly sometimes I wonder if you don’t do drugs around the corner before lunch. It’s like your head is in space.”

“I just remembered, I have to be on the other side of town in like ten minutes. Have a good trip.”

“OK. Bye. Sorry you can’t come with.”

“Trust me, it’s OK.”

Tisha felt better when she sat in her Corolla. It was ten years old, and it looked it. The cracked dashboard was a comfort though. It was refreshing just to be around things that weren’t new or expensive. Her car was worth 1% of the engagement ring Mindy flaunted. She was tired of valets looking down on her. But worse than that, Mindy always called Tisha’s car “cute.” Everything about Tisha was “cute” to Mindy.

“Hey Mom,” Tisha said over the speakerphone.

“I can tell by your voice. Why do you keep seeing that girl?” her mother asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You’re loyal. And that’s admirable. But all that girl does is tear you down. I see her on Instagram. I know you see those posts too. That girl is undoing everything women like us have been trying to do. She doesn’t represent us. For her it’s all about the money, the stuff. You aren’t like that. And you know what happens? Guys look at people like her and they say ‘there, that’s the evidence.’ They rope us all into that.”

“I know, Mom. You’re right. It’s just hard for me. I feel like I’m the only one who could bring her back to reality.”

“And when was the last time she listened to anything you told her?”

“High school probably. She and Drew are going to some deserted island for a few weeks. They’ll be totally off-grid. I would pay to see that. The two of them in the wild? Bravo would put big bucks on that. So we’ll see how much I miss her. If I feel better while she’s gone…”

“Then you can end the friendship. If she blows you off or acts like she always does, then you’ll know you’re doing the right thing. Honestly honey, I just don’t want her to drag you into all that superficial mess. You’re too good. You’re too wonderful for that.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“I hate seeing you miserable. And she makes you that way. You deserve to be happy. And you’ve given that girl a million and one chances. And that husband of hers is an evil, evil man. The way he made his money. I just don’t know how anyone could live with themselves. And that Mindy, she’s complicit. I’m sorry. Pretending to be ignorant is not OK. And Mindy turned her back on her upbringing. She forgot where she came from as soon as she got the chance. It’s time to let her go. If she wants to go down, fine, but she’s not taking you with her.”

“Yeah. You’re right.”

“We’ll get through it. Jeny would support you too. Your wife is a wonderful woman. And she and I are on the same page. She told you to leave Mindy years ago in the dust years ago. Would you mind picking up some flour on your way over?”

“Of course.”

That night, Drew and Mindy walked along the dock towards a small boat. Drew grunted when he slipped on a wet plank. It was dark out, but the moon was a floodlight. The boat was covered in fishing net, and the deck was full of crates. Sitting against a shack, a man whittled a stick and paid them no mind.

“Louis Vuitton isn’t very unassuming,” the captain said.

He wiped his hand on his stained apron and took their bags.

“I don’t think that hobo knows the difference. No one else is here,” said Mindy.

“Here’s the first half. Why don’t you keep the criticism to yourself, huh? I’m not paying you to do anything but drop off and pick up, got it? You’re just an Uber on the water,” said Drew.

“Yes sir,” the captain replied. “This is my nephew, Arturo, he’s going to be—“

“What did I just say? ‘Uber on the water.’ Not conversationalist. I don’t care what your kid’s name is. I don’t care what your name is. My wife and I shouldn’t have to talk to you unless we want to. By the way, what’s with this boat? I thought it was going to be a yacht? You said it was nice!”

“Anything nicer than this would draw attention. You can’t turn off the GPS on the new ones either.”

“Let’s just get going, huh?” Drew said.

Not long after they sputtered out of the tiny fishing village, Mindy was below deck, sick. Drew didn’t want to be near her, but he didn’t want to talk to the crew, so he sat at the back of the boat and watched the churning wake. He pulled out a satellite phone and held down the power button. The display clicked on, but before it loaded completely the screen went blank. When he cracked open the battery pack it was corroded.

“Piece of shit!” Drew yelled, hucking it into the water. “Hey captain? Where the hell are we? Are we close?”

“Mr. Drew, we’re not there yet,” the captain said.

“Well I sure as hell know that! Say something useful.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to log this trip? In case something happens?”

“Look Poncho, I’m paying you more than you’d make in 100 years to drop us off and pick us up. We negotiated the terms in good faith. Here’s your check for the first half. You get the other half when you pick us up. And the only thing you have to do to secure that payment is keep your God damn mouth shut. Now that’s gotta be the easiest money you’ve ever made. Or do I have it wrong and you’re some kind of billionaire just running boats for kicks?”

Hours passed like days. The moon lit the ocean. Other than their camouflaged boat, nothing disturbed the surface for miles.

“There, is that it? Is that the island?” Mindy asked. She was leaning over the rail trying to breathe.

“I think yes,” said the captain.

“Think yes? Why don’t you check your bearings?” asked Drew.

“Mrs. is correct. That is your island,” said Arturo pointing to the map.

“Thank God. Get me off of this boat before I throw up more of my organs. Drew I can’t believe you put me on a floating death trap like this!” said Mindy.

“Roughing it for a few hours won’t kill you Mindy. It’ll toughen you up. The hardest thing you’ve had to do is walk from the Cayenne to the nail solon when it’s cold outside!”

“Drew! Just—“ Mindy threw up what was left in her stomach.

Shooting up out of the water like a church spire, the island was the only feature on the flat expanse. No smoke drifted from its volcanic peak. Lush foliage blanketed the landscape, glowing blue. The engine powered down as they approached.

“Hard to believe this isn’t on any maps,” said Drew. “I should name it! What about, ‘Drewlandia?’”

“Why you? Why not Mindy Island?”

“Because you didn’t do anything. You just got sick and complained the whole way. I found the map, I got the boat.”

Arturo hopped into the shallow waters and pulled the boat closer to the shore. He and the captain communicated shouted instructions back and forth. Once the boat was secured they helped Drew and Mindy get ashore with their luxury bags.

“Here, since I know that’s all you’re thinking about,” said Drew handing a check to the captain.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t be pathetic about it. I know you don’t care about me, so don’t pretend. It makes you look desperate. Why don’t you two leave us alone now? You know the deal. Come back in fifteen days and pick us up. Don’t tell anyone anything, and you get another one of these. Got it? Don’t be idiots. You’re winning the lottery.”

The captain folded the check and put it in a dry pocket. His head was spinning from the number. Drew’s insults flew by unnoticed.

“Where are we going to stay?” asked Mindy.

“We’ll build something! I know you’re used to resorts, but this is the real world out here!”

Mindy kicked the black sand and winced.

“How long are we here again?” she asked.

“Jesus don’t do this already!” said Drew.

“Should we go now?” asked the captain.

“Yes. Get the hell out of here! What are you waiting for?”

The captain went back onboard and fired up the engine. Arturo pushed the hull free and climbed up the ladder. They pulled away and got the boat up to full speed.

“Smell that?” Drew asked.

“Fishy. Like dead fish. I’m gonna be sick again. I want to leave. Why couldn’t we just go to the Maldives like I wanted to?”

“God all you do is complain! It’s really annoying, Mindy. Dead fish isn’t what I was asking about. That air you’re so upset about? It’s air no one’s ever breathed! We discovered Drewlandia!”

“Don’t call it that. That’s a terrible name.”

“Yeah and ‘Mindy Island’ is so much more creative. Listen I spent a lot of money to get us here! Just be grateful, and for once don’t whine. It’s not like we’ll be here forever. It’s just fifteen days, and then you can go back to whatever it is you do all day.”

Arturo looked back towards the island, shrinking into the distance.

“Those two were made for each other. What a bunch of pricks,” said Arturo.

“Who do you think will kill the other first?”

“The woman’ll kill the husband. There’s enough of him to eat for weeks.”

“You’re right. Look at this check! Have you ever seen a number this large?”

“It doesn’t even look real.”

“I know this is just the first payment, but I wouldn’t make this in fifty years if I worked every day all day! This is enough for us, don’t you think? You and I split it. Half of this check is more than we’d ever need. I’m getting old anyway. What do I need all that for?”

“So what are you saying then?”

“Let them have their island. We’ve never lived for money. That’s what those people do. That’s why their lives are so miserable. Nothing worth having can be bought. Of course we need money to survive, but this is plenty,” the captain said.

“We’d be doing the world a favor. Let him name the island, and it’ll disappear with them like Atlantis.”

“No one knows this place exists except us.”

“Half of this is mine? Really?”

“50/50 split,” said the captain.

“So that other check, that’s how much their lives are worth?”

“No. People like that. People who treat others like less. People who live for their fortunes? People who don’t do anything good for the world? People who waste the chance to raise others up? They aren’t worth a penny.”

The Case of the Bag of Bones

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Never seen anything like it in thirty-two years, thirty-three if you count the first one, which I don’t. When I arrived on the scene the yellow tape was up, the road closed off. Four patrols, Engine 22, and an ambulance. I don’t like being briefed. I want my mind fresh: no preconceptions.

Every case is unique. Don’t get me wrong, that older stuff helps. You just can’t use it as the answer key. That’s the easiest way to end up looking for roses in a bedpan.

I sniff around when I arrive on scene. Picked up a bit of burned rubber. Hardly more of that tinny dried blood smell than what comes from a paper cut.

“Detective O’Neill,” one of the young kids said, holding up the tape like I’m an invalid. He pours coffee for me and stuff. What he doesn’t know is that it wont do him any good. “Here’s what we kn—“

“Stop,” I said, trying to shut him up.

“Yes sir.”

Normally I don’t like sir. But it kept a safe distance between he and I. I’ll have a beer with him some day, but not till he climbs in the sewer for evidence. Once a guy’s been covered in shit, I’ll hear what he has to say.

There was a little daylight left. I could size it up before the floods went on. Everything turns sanitary, and then red herrings pop up everywhere. The car that made the tire marks didn’t kill that man. That was indisputable. Stopped too short. That kid was gonna mention the marks, bet the house on hit and run. Looking at the vic it was obvious a car didn’t do it. He was a bag of bones. The skin was just there to make a neat pile. Just a little bit of blood out of the nose, and a few cups trapped under the body.

Whoever was driving that car slammed on the brakes early. Probably texting or filling out a W-4, so they couldn’t be sure if they hit him or not. When people think they’ve done something horrible they run. Guilty, innocent, doesn’t matter. It wasn’t worth figuring out who almost ran him over. But he works in finance. They get the sport tires. Suckers for advertising and insecure about everything. Inverse relationship between horsepower and manpower, to a point.

Wasn’t an entry wound, and even though people erroneously think it’s pointless to check, this time there wasn’t an exit wound either. No stab marks, no bruises, no marks on the neck. I was tempted to say an orthopedic surgeon did it, cut him open and broke the bones, then sewed him up. Arthroscopically, cause there weren’t any slice marks.

So that was the question: how the hell’d all his bones break? Almost like he was just walking, and an anvil crushed him. Problem was, no anvil.

“Must not have been a milk drinker,” I said.

Without a twisted sense of humor, you’ll end up on the watch list real. Clean-cut, upstanding men and women? Hard for them to survive when they see the messed up crap.

“Hah…” Me being a “sir” and all he was thinking, “God, this guy’s a real prick.” Upstanding man. “What do you think, sir?”

I prefer to keep my thoughts private. At least until I’ve had a chance to think em. “Kid,” I said, “never whip up a cake till you’ve read the recipe.”

“O’Neill!” The Fire Chief’s voice is strong as he is. Saw him snap a bat over his knee once to make starters for a campfire. He’s a salty dog but a smart guy. Abrasive as a brick if you don’t know him. The kid didn’t know him. “What’d’ya think happened to that sorry sonuvabitch?”

“World still on fire?”

“Working on it.”

“Have they ID’d yet? I haven’t talk to anyone.”

The kid removed himself. At least he understood subtext.

“They got the license from his wallet. No idea why he looks like this though. I was thinking you should call Aunt Jemima in for questioning.”

The Chief’s not afraid to be cold. I don’t mind sharing ideas with him. He wouldn’t tell his shoes what I said. “Course when I want coffee that kid’s scarce.”

“New guy?”

“He came with the uniform.”

“COD?” He cleared his throat, a real hacking sound. Scares people away, so I like it. There’s something going on there, something about smoke and lungs. Chief’s the kind of guy you’d expect drinks a lot, but he’s a teetotaler. Not the righteous kind. He’d just rather drink Diet Coke.

“I’ve got an idea.”

“What’s tippin’ you?”

“The best clues are the most overlooked. Look at the shoes.”

“What about em?”

“Little cold out to be wearing slip-ons, don’t you think? Other one’s way over there too, at that far end. I came in that way, walked right past it.”

“If he’d been hit…”

“Yeah, but you and I both know he wasn’t hit by a car. You’ve seen enough head-ons.”

“So, whadda you think? Murderer took the shoe off and beat the guy to death, then threw the thing?”

“If someone could cripple like this with shoes that soft, don’t you think they could throw better?”

“Guess so.”

“Look Chief, there’s not a mark on him. I never heard of rapid-on osteoporosis either.”

“So, what about the shoe then?”

“They went through the pockets already. Let’s take a look at that bag. Our answer’s in there. Time of death? Ballpark?”

“Morrison put the range between two and four PM.”

“And the call came in at 4:30. I heard it on the radio. No way that body was lying on this street for two and a half hours before the call. Tighten that to between 4:00 and 4:30.”

“Detective O’Neill, thanks for coming out.” Recognized the face, but the name was gone. I shook his hand.

“I need to see the personal effects,” I said.

“Nothing useful. We were able to ID him. John Malkovic, age—“

“John Malkovich?”

“Different spelling.”

He led us into the trailer. Some idiot parked it on an embankment, so the stairs were more of a ladder.

“Figures. How old?” I was curious, but it didn’t matter.

“Fifty-one. He’s from Chicago, works in Big Pharma. C-Suite.”

The part about Chicago was interesting. I was seeing someone there for a while. Once it got cold we were inside her apartment a lot. Isolation begets clarity. I could see the clear plastic bag, and what I was looking for was in it.

The guy kept at it, “Just one big mystery. How’s a guy get run over but stay in one piece? All the bones are shot, but not a bruise or anything from gettin hit. Just some blood. Impossible…”

“Uh-huh. I’d like to take a look at the personals now.”

“So?”

I drew it out for suspense, examining each item as though it might hold the answer. A calfskin wallet, supple and scoff-free. Definitely a swindling drug dealer’s money keeper. There were keys to a BMW, reliable cars if you don’t mind paying for em. I mind. That and I can’t afford one. An extra button, kind that comes with a new suit, and an unreadable movie stub. Then there was the answer.

I held the thing up and waved it at the Chief.

“Get it now?”

I’d already done the first-grade math; it checked.

“I see what you’re holding.”

“What’s the date today?”

“Twenty… fifth?”

“Yeah. And what’s this say?”

Now I felt like I was the first-grade teacher, and the Chief was that sir kid.

“Twenty… fifth!”

“And the time on here?”

“3:00PM…”

“Probably an hour from Chicago that way… Tell me I don’t have to write it out. Please.”

“Wait a second. You’re not seriously saying he—“

“There were no marks, Chief. He wasn’t hit by a car. Nobody beat him. All his bones are toast. The timeline matches up. The Goddamn slip-on shoes! Christ!”

 “Holy shit… You’re a fricken genius.”

“Just a guy who knows when everybody’s looking down, the answer’s up.”

Between Potatoes & Roses

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

I told the men they weren’t welcome in my home. I’ve been here forty-seven years, and they act as though it’s theirs. They ask how I’ve lived in a place so cramped. They’re the same ones who sanitize homes with white furniture, only a succulent and an Indian rug to accent dispassionate concrete. But there are memories in the pores of this place, in the DNA of the wallpaper, in the armchair’s aged leather scent, and yes, in that painting of the quiet harbor.

Cluttered. Hoarding. Disorganized. Unhealthy. Descriptions uttered in passing as though my hearing aids were earplugs. It’s easier to pretend I can’t hear. Saves me from a disingenuous apology.

We have an unusual relationship, if you can call it that. They come, unwelcome, offer deep criticisms in hushed tones, take my belongings, and leave by saying, “thank you.” Thank you? And I’m supposed to respond with a cheery, “no, thank you?” And I do, because that little morsel of sarcasm is my last defense, the drops of juice I squeeze from the rinds they leave. What remains of my dignity lies in that pulp.

In the beginning I followed them, asked why they were taking certain things. Sometimes I got angry, like when they tossed my mother’s delftware cookie jar as though it were a rugby ball. I didn’t follow them upstairs. I haven’t been up there in years. No need. And whatever mold’s up there’ll give them more hell than I could.

I leave the door unlocked; they don’t knock anymore. Resistance is a waste, but I still have my fun: turn up the TV real loud, scream obscenities. Nice senile stuff. So far it’s kept them from stealing from the living room where I roost in my chair with a sparkling water and look at the short, flowing brushstrokes and mellow hues. I get lost looking for my reflection in the dark pond, imagining I could walk across the bridge under the moonlight.

Repossession. Foreclosure. Reverse mortgage. They run together after a while. I suppose each item is seized for a specific reason. From a legal perspective that’s important. From where I sit it matters as much as String Theory.

When the men aren’t here to dismantle my life, I dedicate my time to reading. For a few weeks it was 18th century poetry, then it was science fiction from the fifties, and recently I’ve been engaged with graphic novels. I don’t go out of my way to vary the material; that’s what the people from the library drop off. Not sure who thought a Hoover baby wants to read about an orphaned Frenchman with lasers for eyes, but it isn’t as bad as it tries to be.

One day the personality will be totally sucked from this place. They asked me, eight times actually, “Are you sure you won’t sell it? You could pay for everything if you put it up for auction? Keep the whole place and all you’ve got in it. Buy anything you want.” What they didn’t understand then and still don’t is that I could never sell that painting. It was a gift from an old friend. We used to travel together and talk.

Now he’s gone, and what’s left of him lives in that canvas. None of the hired muscle see the value of the work. They wouldn’t know Monet from Hirst.

The idea of selling it, of others ascribing a value to it, willingly giving it up to keep what I have, it’s antithetical to my being. They’ll have to tear it from my rigor mortis hands. Rather unassuming life that work has lived in my care, nestled between potatoes and roses. You get to convincing yourself the artist admires your treatment. So long as you don’t cover it up or lock it away. When it catches my eye I feel proud for serving as its custodian.

On the Canals

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The kids were gone, off playing beyond the imaginary boundaries surveyed by their parents.

“I told them not to go past the square. They promised me they wouldn’t!” the mother said, massaging her aching temple.

“They never listen,” her husband replied.

“That doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know where our children are.”

“They’ll come back. Couldn’t have wandered too far. Besides all the bridges and footpaths bring you back to this square one way or another. Piazza Whatever-it’s-called, that all the signs are for with the arrows. If there’s a universal truth, it’s that all roads end here.”

“But in order for them to find their way back, they’d have to want to get back.”

“Let me take a picture of you in front of the statue. That one over there. Just stand next to it, maybe lean like… like that. There. Now just picture what it looks like to smile and try to copy that. One, two, three.”

“Happy?”

“Exceedingly.”

“How do we find our kids? Now that there’s a physical record of us enjoying our vacation without them. Terrible parenting.”

Her husband’s watch focused the sun into her eyes as he inspected the photo.

“Will you put that thing away! Why aren’t you worried?” she snapped.

“They’re just exploring. We’d have done the same thing at their ages. It’s a big tourist destination. Let’s get some pizza at that place on the corner. They’ll emerge from the woodwork if we have food. Probably hiding behind the church. Or running up the tower over there. What’s it called again?”

“I don’t remember. God it’s been so long since I took that architecture class. Free—something like Freedom I think.”

The mother bit her lip and examined the building with its cupola and layered columns. Canal levels were down and the surface calm. High water marks rose five or six feet, the walls darker from the detritus suspended in the blue-brown liquid. Not many gondolas drifted. It was still too early. Pizza was in the air, or else her hunger conjured the alluring scent: fresh, charred dough and caramelized cheese. She felt guilty for thinking of food when all three of her children had disappeared.

“OK, but in twenty minutes, if they aren’t back, we go look for them and call the police and send out a search party and dogs.”

“Yes, that’s a reasonable plan. Besides, they have each other. Now, I’m hungry. Heard this  place is great. My coworker, you remember Al? He and his wife were here last summer, and they went to this restaurant four times!”

“Al’s Italian, isn’t he?”

“Not just Italian, he’s Venetian! Well his family is anyway. He’s from Detroit.”

“If he’s Venetian, then he must know,” she said mockingly.

“God they’ve got pigeons here. Look at them up there on that building! Must be three hundred! Let’s hope they haven’t had their fiber today.”

“Charming.”

“I try,” he answered, signaling to the circling waiter.

There was a small vase with a fresh rose on the wire table. An elderly man, posture crumpled like an old beer can, wheezed an accordion. Each pull was a deep, troubled breath, each push a constrained, musical exhale. It was rustic or sad.

“You really do smell that when tide’s low don’t you? Drowns out the pizza…”

The wife twiddled with the menu while she brewed about her lost offspring.

“Imagine what it was like all those years ago, when this place was bustling.”

“Hmm…” she replied, considering the prospects of the past. “Remarkable this city’s still around. Through it all, the flooding, the conflicts. They say it was one of the wealthiest cities, you know?”

“Mom!”

“Dad!”

“Is it time to eat?”

Three young voices echoed in the long corridor. It sounded as though a troop was descending on a picnic, famished from a long hike through dense wilderness. Their father sat back, satisfied with the results of his laissez faire approach. The kids popped out from under a heavy arch.

“Where have you been? Never! Never do that again!” their mother reprimanded.

“Sorry…” the eldest responded at his shoes, guiltily kicking pebbles.

“Sit down. We ordered pizzas,” their father instructed, allowing a lack of disciplinary action to instill in them a sense of personal responsibility. So he imagined, asking a great deal of a six-year-old, nine-year-old, and ten-year-old.

“What kind?” the youngest, a tubby carbohydrate enthusiast with hand-me-down shorts that settled mid-shin, asked.

“Does it matter?” his sister asked.

“You’ll eat it no matter what,” said the brother.

“Don’t tease him,” their mother objected.

“Cheese and one with vegetables.”

“Well? What did you all see on this grand adventure of not listening to us?”

The girl took command, “We went to the docks, to see the ocean and some of the boats. There was one,” her eyes widened as her hands stretched out to represent two hundred and fifty feet, “this big! Like a whole mansion!”

“It had a helicopter on the back,” the youngest exclaimed.

“I was gonna say that!” his sister insisted.

“This city’s no stranger to big ships,” their father explained. “It’s an amazing place when you think about it. All this water through the city. Only get around by boat or walking across a million bridges.”

“Did you all know I was here once, when I was thirteen?” their mother asked. “Came with my parents, your grandparents. Things weren’t much different then, only they were doing all kinds of restoration work. Scaffolding was everywhere. Hurricanes caused a lot of damage that year.”

Pizzas arrived. On trivets they were set with the waiter’s warning, “Careful, very hot.” Eastern European and terse, the man was economical with his words. The father looked at each child.

“Oh! Thank you!” the girl said as the waiter walked away.

“Thank you!”

“Thank you…” her siblings mimicked.

“Never again!” their mother repeated. “Don’t run away, and don’t forget to say thank you.”

“OK, we understand,” the eldest replied.

“I was here once too, as a kid though,” the father recalled. “The food, that’s what I remember most.”

“Yeah, yeah. You were here before this was under water, huh?” his wife asked condescendingly.

“Not that old. You’re right. It is more or less the same as it was then. Nice to see it mostly fixed up. Hard to maintain a city on water.”

“Have you been to the other one?” their daughter asked.

“In Italy?” one of her brother’s wondered.

“Yes, once I was in Venice. But that city was built on water. For hundreds of years it stood with canals and ancient churches before the sea rose and gobbled it up. Believe it or not, people once drove around here. Everything you see was dry land. Before you all were born, before your mother and I were born even, Miami was a different place.”

Penny Saved

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“I’m getting that ‘Zah’ sensation.”

“We haven’t even gotten out of the car yet, Angie.”

“Don’t need to. It’s not something I control. It just is. This is the house.”

“Well let’s go inside and see the realtor. Just as an exercise in due diligence. What do you say? Want to make sure it’s right for the kids too. Not that I’m doubting your ‘Zah’ energy. Last time I did that it bit me in the ass.”

“Harvey…”

Harvey switched off the ignition and pleading innocence in the foul-call. Pollen season had just begun, so the air was thick with atomized yellow dust. When the breeze blew, clouds of the fine powder swept off roofs and trees with the delicate choreography of schools of fish.

“I think I might have done some work here. Years ago. Not for the current owners. Realtor said an addition was made in the last two years though, but that wasn’t me. My memory is all over the place these days.”

“I love the wrap around porch. And look,” Angie pointed to the ceiling as they walked up the stone stairs. “Oh my gosh, Harvey! Wood paneling with the ceiling fans? I’ve always wanted that. We could sit out here with lemonade in rocking chairs in the summer with the fans going. That would be just—“

“You don’t even like lemonade…”

“Hey! The Wingers!” The realtor wore a collection of bracelets, rings, and earrings. A chunky turquoise necklace lent an air of pre-colonial nobility. Her white vest had the collar popped, and her circular frames were an unnatural pink tortoise shell. She waved her hands down to her elbows.

“Liz, this is… well, I haven’t seen the inside yet except the pictures you sent, but I told Harvey—“

“Zah?” Liz offered.

“Completely Zah.”

“OK, that is fabulous. Let’s take a tour. What do you say? Harvey? Your general contractor is showing. Staring at the molding, looking for a wobbly paint line. You’re all the same!”

Harvey tilted his head to see the brush strokes beneath the trim against the light. “Yeah, well you know me Liz. I think I did some work on this house once. Is there a screened in deck out back?”

“Bingo! It’s beautiful. You feel like you’re in a tree house. Come on back, we can start there. Just ignore the renovated kitchen with its white granite countertops until after we swing through the forest.”

“Definitely. I put this in. Ages ago,” Harvey said, admiring his work with a studious frown and squinting eyes. “They painted it recently.”

Liz and Angie admired the view. Angie imagined herself there with a book and a mug, pouring a measure of cream and watching the white explode in a cloud. Liz led them back into the kitchen, where she fired up the gas-powered range. In the oven were cookies, a sweet-salty smell.

“So master is on the first floor, and then there are two bedrooms upstairs. So the twins could bunk in one, and you could use the other as a guest room. When they grow up maybe they get their own spaces. You know, a lot you can do there,” Liz said, leading them through the master bathroom with its large mirrors and ample closet space.

——————————————————————————————————————–

about ten years earlier…

“Are you concerned at all, about the pitch? You know the incline here? I just want to make sure its safe.”

“Dave, I wouldn’t take this job if I didn’t think it was safe,” Harvey assured him.

“Just use the best materials you can find. This is a terrible thing to say to a contractor, but the cost isn’t the most important aspect to me. It’s safety. Make this thing safe for my family.”

“You’ll be able to live out there if you want.”

Harvey pulled out his phone, its industrial case caked in dried mud. Where before had been a sloping mess of weeds and struggling grass, was now a geometric cross-section, awaiting concrete footers and a towering screened-in deck.

“Listen, George. The homeowner said money is no object. So, I’ll get the stuff that’ll get the job done, and in five years if he has issues I’ll come back, and that’ll be a fix-up job I can say was because the ground settled or something. You know how it is. He doesn’t need the best materials. Nothing’s going to happen to it. All that matters is peace of mind. And if he thinks I put the top of the line in, and he paid for it, then there’s no reason for him to worry. Besides, he’ll probably sell the place in a few years. So just quote me on the top shelf and quote me on the mid-tier. It’ll be reconciled. What do you say?”

——————————————————————————————————————–

Angie and Harvey moved quickly on the house. Liz told them there were prospective buyers lurking and willing to make higher offers. But she shielded them as a favor to the Wingers. They’d given her a great deal of business over the years. Harvey felt good about the move, especially the deck, because he trusted his own craftsmanship. Once he was established in the area, he stopped cutting corners and did top notch work. Getting to that point was difficult, but the ends justified the means. He’d all but rewritten the history of the early part of his career, so the means were victims of his unreliable memory.

Harvey stood at the corner of the wrap-around porch watching the street, away from the fan’s cool rush. Angie’s nose was in a paperback. She rocked rhythmically. Iced tea sat beside her, sweating.

“What were Hannah and Dallas doing when you came out?” He asked, straightening his arms and stretching his back on the rail.

“They were playing on the back deck. Building with those block things, the LEGO bricks. They aren’t LEGOs, but whatever they’re called. You know.”

“Gotta keep them away from the family bus—“ Ice ran up Harvey’s spine. A loud crack, like a Redwood snapping in half, reverberated through the house. Angie’s eyes were aflame with fear.

“What was that?” she asked, jumping to her feet, the book slapping the floor.

They hesitated and listened. A rumbling picked up, getting louder and louder. It was as if a wrecking ball were moving through the forest. Trees shook. There was a quick succession of cracks and pops followed by the screams of their children.

“The deck!” Harvey yelled, darting for the front door. There was no longer a lack of clarity. Harvey remembered the job as though he’d just cashed the check. Through the kitchen windows he saw the roof falling down, and the cost of his lapse in integrity shooting catastrophically up.

the swarm

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

The machinery continued unceasingly day and night, indiscriminate toward lunch hours and shift changes. Very little human involvement was necessary at the plant. There was a front-end loader who guided the shipments into the loading bay, but even the transfer of the raw materials was done by floating robotic arms and moving floors. Up in the crow’s nest, a glassed-in pod positioned high above the electronic ballet playing out in the hanger, two managers watched. But they could not watch constantly; it was too overwhelming. There were never any changes.

Most of the time Fred and Susanne, who held the day shift charge, sat at opposite ends of the enclosure, communicating only during the thirty minutes allotted at the noon whistle for eating. Susanne read books, all kinds from Tolstoy to Verne. On the wall behind there was an insurmountable collection she was chipping away at. Every fifteen minutes Susanne scanned the factory and checked the screens on which live footage was broadcast of every moving part in the facility. Seeing nothing out of order, Susanne returned to Robinson Crusoe.

Fred played himself in endless games of chess. For the first few months every match ended in a stalemate, but he learned to bisect his brain. Fred did not know what move Fred was contemplating, he saw only Fred’s strategy. As a result, Fred lost at the exact same frequency with which Fred won.

“Checkmate,” he’d say every forty-five minutes.

“Touché,” Fred relented, tipping over the cross-bearing monarch. It was then that Fred performed his checks.

There was only one night manager at a time, and the responsibility alternated between Gloria and Kit. Kit intermittently woke between alarms set every half hour. Gloria knitted. She started with mittens and socks, large enough only for infant appendages. Then she graduated to sweaters and impractical pants, colorful and gaudy, unflattering in form, anything to will her way to the morning whistle.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Hundreds of times a day, maybe thousands, for no one could keep track except the computer, frozen bricks of protein dropped onto the conveyer belt. After a heating, a shaping, a super-freezing, and every pocket of air sucked out, the raw shipment transformed into neat packages.

After the thunk of the bricks on the belt, they ventured off to the packaging operation. Once piled up in neat stacks, enough to fill a shipping container, the loader popped out of a hut and guided the collection to the transportation.

It was a flawless operation, swifter, cleaner, and more efficient than the old days, where cows and pigs, chickens and goats, had to be raised and slaughtered. Insects were grown in a matter of hours and then super-chilled before being sent to the factory. They required few nutrients, and even less care. No one had ethical issues with farming those nasty creatures, their beady eyes never seeing natural light, spindly arms and legs at acute angles crunched into a tight mass. People could hardly tell the difference in the flavor, and they’d finally mastered the texture. No longer was it mealy.

Low costs were predictably well-received, and every measure was taken to distract consumers from the true ingredients. Over time, bugs lost their nefarious reputation.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Another brick. Thunk. Another and another and so on and so forth they dropped through the sunlight and the moonlight, under dark, cloudy skies, and new moons. Inside the factory the outside world did not exist. For Susanne there were other worlds to tend to on the page. Fred was only one move away from winning and just as close to loosing. After a quick check, Kit could go back to sleep. Gloria was nearly done with the first batch of orange and purple tracksuits that would never be worn.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Susanne was on the last chapter of her most recent endeavor, the closing stages of a trilogy. She’d lost interest in the characters and the story some time in the second book, when she felt the plot points and background information were repeated unnecessarily. Susanne didn’t care about the characters anymore, but she never gave up on a novel, because the only thing she had was completing those works. Once she closed a book mid-way. Once. Never to open it again. Not because it was poorly written, in fact she rather enjoyed its language, but Susanne could not handle the grotesque imagery, the vibrant description of heinous acts. Her imagination was too active. Horror was the only genre away from which she readily steered.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Susanne did not hear the clicks and thunk anymore, like the second hand of a clock it fell deaf upon over-exposed ears. But a whoosh? That was not normal. Without marking her page, Susanne threw the book down with a thud.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Again with the whoosh. Susanne shot to her feet and darted from screen to screen, scanned the massive factory for abnormalities. Fred heard the book connect with the concrete floor and accidentally knocked over a bishop.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Fred asked.

“The conveyor belt!”

“Yes, yes, what about it?” he said annoyed by the disturbance.

“We have to shut it down, something’s wrong!”

“Nonsense, nothing is wrong. Nothing is ever wrong. It’s all very precise. Can’t be shut down. We have to make the quotas, don’t you know that?”

“But the sound! There’s a whoosh and not a thunk. It’s always been a thunk.”

Thunk? What are you talking about?”

“Oh Fred, what do you know? You’re so lost in that game you don’t know up from down.”

“Maybe if you pulled your nose from those books once in a while you could clean out your ears!” he barked defensively.

Susanne grabbed the binoculars that hung dormant on the hook by their jackets. In her tenure, she’d used the magnifiers only once, on her first day when she gazed with wonderment at the technology. It did not take long for her to cool to the advanced mechanisms. They were not impressive, just menial and never-ending. Eyesight enhanced, she looked to the conveyer belt where neat bricks were not traveling equidistantly in a line as they were programed. Amorphous blobs splattered on the moving surface.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Ten or twenty, maybe a hundred more whooshes in the period of indecision, of uncertainty, of hesitation.

“There! There! Look!” she screamed, pressing the rubber eye pieces to Fred’s face.

“What? Stop that, you’re hurting me!”

“Look at the belt, Fred!”

Fred snatched the binoculars irritably. “Give me those!” His jaw widened. “We have to shut it down! How do we shut it down?”

“See? Now you believe me!” cried Susanne.

“This is no time for squabbling. How do we turn it off?”

“I don’t know! I thought you knew how this all worked!”

“Me? I thought you were the expert!”

“Hah! Isn’t this just perfect? The one time something happens!”

The click-click-click-click-whoosh was now joined by another sound, amplifying exponentially with each passing minute. It started as a white noise, a fan on low in a back room. The floodlights darkened, unwelcome mood lighting. At first indescribable, when vibration joined the noise, a chilling sense of enlightenment overcame Susanne and Fred.

Click-click…

Clicking went inaudible. Whooshing was no more, not to say anything of the distant memory of thunking. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz was the auditory tidal wave sweeping through. Soon the industrial luminescence reduced to the twinkle of a few fireflies. Then the world went pitch black. Their ears bled blackness, an outpouring felt but not seen. Not even fingers inserted deep into canals could stem the flow or deaden the excruciating buzzing.

Beep-beep-beep-beep-clink.

The driver stopped reversing when the shipping container made contact with the buffer. He didn’t watch anymore, allowing the clink to guide him. As he climbed out of the driver’s seat, the man spit out brownish-green saliva laced with tobacco. He glanced at the display beside the massive bay door. Nothing was irregular. Times and weights were the exact same except the most recent.

But the driver did not notice, because he saw what he expected to see. Colorblind, the red appeared no different than the green. The man put in his earplugs, not wanted to hear the pounding, mechanical click-click-click-click-thunk.With a yawn and a readjustment of the wad under his lip from left to right, the driver punched the bay door opener. So effective was the hearing protection that the bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz did not register as the door lifted, drowning out his scream of exasperation as the swarm poured out into the clear night air.

Graham Jennings Hill

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“If we could all gather ourselves. I would like to begin the proceedings. My name is Charles Swift, and I am the President of the Rogers County Chapter of Kiwanis International,” a spruce of a man said from behind a podium of plywood and peeling laminate. His balding head was inflated, bulged out at the temples, and on the end of his branch nose sat half-moon spectacles through which he strained.

“Charles are we going to start now?” a member yelled from the back corner where he occupied two of the cafeteria’s structurally unsound plastic chairs.

“That’s what he’s doing, Martin!” another shouted back.

“Thank you, Fred,” Charles said. “I’d like to welcome everyone here to Parker Baptist School for today’s installment of our speaker series, ‘Bringing the World to You At Home.’ But first I would like to thank Parker Baptist for allowing us use of their fine dining hall.” He raised his arms and made a sweeping gesture to inspire eyes to scan the 1960s relic with harsh, triangular windows and stained office panel ceiling in an unfortunate green. The floor was black-speckled concrete, polished dangerously for the Rogers County Chapter. “Some of the wonderful ladies here prepared excellent Folgers’s coffee, which is on the back table along with lemonade and an assortment of truly flavorful doughnut holes,” Charles added.

The information swept over the room of multi-genarians like a cool fall breeze, eliciting expressions as glazed-over as the fried snacks. A few adjusted hearing aids, fidget spinners of the WWII contingency.

“When did he say they were serving the coffee?” a man in a wheelchair with a baggy button-down whispered loudly.

“We’ll make sure you get a cup,” Charles replied, leaning forward. “Hey Rick! Would you get Al some coffee please?”

“Does he want anything in it?”

“Al, do you want anything in your cup?”

“Coffee, you moron,” Al replied.

“Black! Now really, gentlemen, let’s move this along. Before I call up our speaker, as we traditionally do, I’d like any guests we have today to introduce themselves.”

Three men, sufficiently old to be mistaken for Rogers County Chapter of Kiwanis members and a young man of twenty slowly rose.

“I guess I’ll go ahead and speak first,” one of the men said, doffing his brown trilby. “My name is Gerhardt Sven Matthews, and I was roommates with your friend Sal here at the University of Tulsa back in ’52. Before I retired I was an insurance man,” he said. The introduction was met with piecemeal applause.

“Thank you, Mr. Matthews. And next, you sir?”

“Well hell, I don’t know if I can follow that one. I’m Ralph Almondson. I’m old as dirt, and George here told me they were serving coffee. Also I know the accused.”

“Mr. Almondson…” Charles’s voice trailed off. “And Sam, in the pink jacket?”

“Samuel Benet. I’ve known Charles here since, well, long before he was all ‘higher than thou’ as president of this fancy club. No, I am only joking. Charles is a good man. We served together, and he thought I’d be interested in today’s talk. Thank you, and I’m sorry about my joke, Charles is a good, honest, man,” his voice was high-pitched and gravelly like he’d smoked a pack of unfiltereds and huffed a balloon.

“Thank you Sam. If only more members were able to hear you! And finally, we have a young man in our midst. Son, would you mind telling us a little about yourself?”

“I’m Bradley. I’m a student at Oklahoma State, and I’ve known the speaker, Mr. Hill, for several years. We belong to the same gym, and we’ve had many great conversations in the sauna.”

“All the way from Oklahoma City! Welcome, it sounds like you have a great future ahead. Earn your degree, and I’m sure Kiwanis would be thrilled to accept your application for membership. Now I’d like to introduce our speaker. The man I’m about to invite to take the podium is an old friend of mine, a man I played poker with regularly in the 80s and 90s, and those are years not ages!” Charles paused for the chuckles.

“This individual is one of the most accomplished and highly respected men I’ve ever known. He fought in the Army in WWII and Korea, earning three Purple Hearts for his daring service. In civilian life, the man returned to his chemistry roots to work for the pharmaceutical company, Haynes-Bayton, and retired as the president of their research and development division after 30 years. But today, having recently turned 95, he joins us to talk about one of his many expeditions. Today he will tell us about the trials and excitement of making the push to the South Pole. Please give a warm welcome to Mr. Graham Jennings Hill.”

There was muted applause in the crowd and a fair measure of bewilderment. At the back of the room where the artisanal Folgers was percolating, three men laughed and added coffee to their cream, blissfully unaware. Graham Jennings Hill made his way to the front of the room with a swiftness belying his age, stimulating envy from those a great deal younger. Graham wore a hound’s-tooth jacket with straight, pink pocket square, black pants, and black penny-loafers. Nestled perfectly in the notch of his neck, set against a starched dress shirt, he wore an expertly tied bowtie. Though 95, Graham required no lenses to correct his sight. In a more refined setting, Graham could easily have been mistaken for a star from Hollywood’s “Golden Era.”

“Thank you Charles, for that very kind and thoughtful introduction. Of all the times I’ve been introduced, that was by far the most recent. It is an honor to be invited here to Rogers Country, a place etched into my bucket list between Singapore and Australia. As Charles said, I will be speaking with you all today about an expedition to the South Pole three years ago of which I was fortunate to be a part. The journey was trying, and deadly cold, but ultimately one of incredible adventure. I’ve put together here a Power Point which will show images as I recount the expedition.”

Charles turned on the projector, which released a puff of smoke from the vents strangled by vines of dust. Onto the pull-down screen materialized from a blurry haze the title slide, “To the Bottom of the Earth: An Expedition to the South Pole by Graham Jennings Hill.” The projector buzzed at a frequency low enough to bother some but high enough to go unnoticed by others. The backdrop to the title slide was an image of a massive black ship with a shark’s mouth across the bow.

“This is the Russian icebreaker, the Stalin, a poorly named vessel that should have been decommissioned after the war. I thought after Yalta I’d never have to fight Stalin again, but this ship gave us plenty to fuss about, including the night when my room flooded up to my waist, and I discovered very quickly which of my belongings were sea worthy. I’d have been more upset about my stuff if the water weren’t so damn cold. It ripped the breath right out of me,” Graham tried to use the clicker, “Next slide please.”

Charles pressed the button on the computer several times, applying greater force with each attempt. When the image on the screen didn’t move, Graham sighed. “What’s the issue?”

“I’m not sure. It won’t move forward.”

“Is he done already?” Al yelled.

“Fred, would you come up here? Fred is our tech expert, and he’s very savvy,” Charles said, reassuring Graham. It took Fred, at eighty-five, a minute to shuffle his way to the front, head pointed down from a pronounced slump.

He is your tech expert?” Graham quipped.

“This may take a bit!” Charles said to the room as Fred settled into the seat and unsheathed his readers. “Does anyone have anything they’d like to offer while Fred takes care of this technological problem?”

A hand shot up a few rows back. “I’ve got something, Charles!”

“Oh hell, is Rick going to ramble about some nonsense again?” Martin barked.

“Come on up, Rick,” Charles said.

As Rick replaced Graham Jennings Hill at the podium, he pulled a document from his breast pocket. “You all are going to love this. Remember Harry Truman? Well this is a story about Truman that will knock your socks off. We all know aliens are real of course, but do you know the story of MJ-12?” As Rick continued, Graham cradled his head.

The conspiracy theory continued for a few minutes before Fred called out, “OK we fixed it!”

“If I could…” Graham interjected.

“Now let me just finish this,” Rick replied reaching the end of the page before turning to the next. “And then they got ahold of a leaked, top-secret document singed by none other than Harry S. Truman himself!” He went on absent the interest of the crowd. But he was determined to reach the conclusion several pages away.

“Rick! They fixed the thing!” someone yelled.

“Shut the hell up and sit down!” another called out.

“We’re not here to listen to you. I have to put up with that at all these meetings already!” contributed a third.

But none of the shouts phased Rick, who by the time he’d completed his thesis on alien cover-up by Harry S. Truman, had killed twenty minutes and several members.

“Than you, Rick,” Graham said toeing the podium, “They say time is wasted on youth, but you found away to waste it on us. Now as I was saying, this is the Stalin. We boarded the Stalin in Argentina from where we headed south to the ice shelf. Joining me on the expedition were several U.S. military vets, a group of scientists from Argentina, and a man who was doing reconnaissance work and training for a solo attempt at crossing Antarctica. The Stalin was staffed with former Russian naval men who, based on their enthusiastic approach to taking on nature’s challenges, were likely discharged dishonorably for recklessness and purchased the once fallow ship at auction in Ivory Coast.”

“Charles, we’ve got to be done here in 5 minutes!” Martin called out.

“I’ve only just begun,” Graham protested.

“I know, and I’m terribly sorry, Graham, but unfortunately we are bound by our time-constraint, and Rick ate a rather large portion of your time.”

“He spoke for twenty minutes, and I’ve only talked for three. He didn’t have a portion, he ate my whole damn meal!”

“I’m so sorry Graham.”

“We want to ask some questions.” A man said through a mouthful of doughnut holes.

“Yes, Graham, I feel awful, but they were promised five minutes of Q & A.”

“Well, before I move to questions, let me just blurt out a summary. It was a difficult journey, it was cold, some people got frostbite, sadly one gentleman died, and the rest of us made it to the South Pole and back safely. And here are some pictures,” he said clicking through the remaining slides so quickly they could barely be seen. “There that’s it. What do you want to know? Yes, you.”

“Now, you said you went to the South Pole?”

“Yes.”

“So not the North Pole?”

“Correct.”

“I just wanted to clarify that because I’m sure many of us thought you were talking about the North Pole, which is the famous one.”

“I sincerely hope you are mistaken, but I doubt it. Others?”

“You said it was cold?”

“Yes.”

“And how did you know that?”

“Because we were all freezing.”

“Oh, so you actually went there? These aren’t just pictures you found on the Internet? Because my grandson can find anything on the Internet.”

“I’m in many of the images… Yes, I went to the South Pole. The temperature was many degrees below zero, which I was able to discern because we were equipped with a thermometer, a device which, if you all were not aware, measures the temperature.”

“Were there many reindeer there? Or perhaps the better question is, did you eat anything other than reindeer when you were there?” The member was impressed with the pertinent humor of his query.

“Frankly that isn’t a better question. Both queries are ludicrous. There are no reindeer in Antarctica, and as for what we ate, it was mostly soups and beans, generally canned fare. Our refrigerator was actually heated to keep the food from turning rock solid in the cold.”

“Is it true that the Eskimos are cannibals?”

“First of all, there are no Eskimos in Antarctica. Secondly, none of them are cannibals. I find you all to be terribly uninformed. Perhaps it is best I didn’t get to deliver my talk. I’m afraid to wonder what questions my full account would inspire.”

“Graham, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind fielding just one more question before we close?” Charles asked timidly.

“I’m nearly breathless in anticipation.”

“What does the South Pole look like?”

“Thank you, actually that’s a very good question. There is a sign indicating the geographic South Pole, but in fact the magnetic South Pole is not a fixed point. We used a GPS to locate it when we were there. Everything around was barren and icy, so the topography was not a reliable source of information.”

“You used a gypsy?” Al called out.

“G P S!”

“I don’t trust those people! Sell your shirt off your back and tell you you always wanted to get sunburned.”

“It has been a great joy speaking with you all today, something I look forward to forgetting in the years to come. Perhaps aging has its benefits. Thank you. Charles, adieu” Graham taking his collected notes to the coffee.

“Let’s give Mr. Graham Jennings Hill a big round of applause. I’m sure it would have been a wonderful talk had Rick not shanghaied the entire session. That concludes today’s speaker series. Next month the subsequent installment of ‘Bringing the World to You At Home,’ will be a talk by Edward Foster on what the difference is between a continent and a country. I’m sure that will prove very informative for all of us. Thank you, and we hope to see those among you who are still with us back here at Parker Baptist School at that time. Graham you’re invited to join us.”

After blowing steam off his styrofoam cup, Graham Jennings Hill smiled. “Not for all the gold in Fort Knox. Cheers gentlemen.”

All on Knightly News

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Mort grouped the glasses in a mass. All the alcohol was cleaned out. He poured Cokes, waters, lemonades, and the odd milk, into one container, a fraternity pledge’s virgin nightcap. Hardware went into the buss bin, food scraps dealt with later. All Mort wanted was to be out of that place.

It had been a slow night by Tackle Box standards. Other restaurants would have called it a Friday rush. Mort was the “staff” part of “understaffed.” When he was a kid, fish and chips was a rare treat. As an employee it was the overcooked, tartar-smeared remains he interred. He hadn’t eaten cod since the magic was peeled away during his first shift three years earlier.

There were supposed to be two other waiters, a busboy, and a food runner. The manager scheduled them, which was supposed to mean something. Not even the manager showed. He was salaried. Mort was jester, advisor, and king with all the responsibilities and none of the trappings. To accompany him was the dishwasher, out back by the dumpster trying to light a skinny blunt, and the owner, passed out in his office from consecutive sleepless nights.

On weekends there were performers, steamer trunk, train-hopping acts paid in meals and tips. So all the tables were bussed at once, after lingerers were thrown back out to sea. Frequently the acts took Mort’s tips from the tables as they shouldered their instruments. Mort confronted a comedian once about it. The funnyman denied it and landed a left on Mort’s gut. That night the three-piece jazz group had magnetic fingers.

Mort caught himself on a chair back after slipping on a French fry, the Tackle Box’s banana peel. Mort dreamed of the shower liberating him from the seafood stench. His elbows stuck to the thin layer of indeterminate slime, and he peeled them off like stickers melted to windowpanes.

“Mort Mackerel, everyone!” he called out. His last name was secret for obvious reasons. On his application he’d written Mort M., and the manager didn’t ask. Employees were paid in cash, when they were paid at all, so government names weren’t required. It was then, from his quarters in the bottom of a well of resignation, that Mort saw the handwriting scribbled on the back of a waterlogged receipt.

Where the line said, “tip,” was written, “see back.” Mort feared a cruel joke, a cutting line to finish him off. He remembered the table well, three smartly dressed men in their sixties, successful at something.

On the back was scrawled, “All on Knightly News in the fifth.”

Mort couldn’t help but laugh the loud, sarcastic outburst of a villain. “What’s next? Stocks and bonds?” Mort derided. He stuffed the stub into his apron, another submission to the random order slips, paperclips, and pens. When he brought the cart full of bus tubs into the kitchen the dishwasher was gone.

“Another Houdini. That’s four in three weeks.”

If left, Mort knew the crap would be waiting for him in the morning, so he loaded the washer. An hour or two later the dishes were done. Mort walked home knowing he wouldn’t get paid for the extra hours or even the scheduled ones.

Tomorrow was not a new day full of prospects. It was the same day, gearing up to play over again with a different cast of characters like an off-Broadway show. Mort slept soundly. It was the one thing he was good at no matter the circumstances. All he had to do was lay down, and he was good as gone, a falling cadaver caught by a hard mattress. In the morning Mort riffled through his apron and found the crumpled receipt: “All on Knightly News in the fifth.”

He looked in the mirror and noticed he’d missed a patch of beard. The resulting strands stuck out like weeds in an untended lawn. Mort felt twice his age and looked twice that. He needed a haircut, a massage, money, and a companion. Mort Mackerel would go get all that once he had something to begin with.

Mort called his old friend Andre. Andre and Mort went way back to when they were locked up in Kansas together. Neither did the crime they committed. At least that was the company line. Roughly the same age, Andre and Mort connected over a shared hatred of accountants. In different ways, accountants put them behind bars.

“Andre, if I wanted to play the ponies, how would I put money down?”

“You want to gamble on the track? Don’t tell me you loaded a pistol too.”

“Nothing like that. I got a tip on a horse. Figured I’d try my luck.”

“Your luck is shit,” Andre chuckled.

“About as shit as yours.” Mort replied defensively.

“But mine’s not as smelly. What’s the horse?”

“Knightly News. He races in the fifth.”

“The fifth at where?”

“I don’t know. That’s all the guy wrote.”

“What guy, Mort? You got a horse guy?”

“Just a customer. He wrote it on a receipt instead of a tip. I mean it is a tip, I guess. That was the point anyway.”

“Some people, man. Let me see if I can find out. How much you in for?”

Mort paused to calculate how much he could afford. “Five grand.”

“Five grand!” Andre nearly cracked the receiver. “Do you even have that kind of money?”

“It’s all I’ve got,” Mort replied. “The note said all.”

“Jesus, Mort. Are you sure about this? This guy know something nobody else knows? I found this pony. He’s got long-shot odds. And I mean long-shot.”

“How long?”

“That would pay out over… $700,000!”

Mort digested. “Since we’re out you picked up accounting?”

“Don’t joke. I can’t put all your money down. I won’t do it. But I’ll give you a guy’s number. If you really want to do this, call him. And… put me down for $200. But listen! You lose it all, and I’m not giving you a dime! I can’t afford to be a loan shark. Hell, I can’t swim!”

“Just give me the number.”

Not only did Mort put in the five grand, but he put Andre down for $1,000 too. That evening Mort was out of sorts, messing up drink orders, and staying in the kitchen when he was supposed to be tending tables.

“Mort! Get out there! Those people pay!” the owner yelled. But then he went back to sleep on his stool. “They pay…” he blubbered.

Mort stayed in the back and watched the time. It was 6:34, the post time for the fifth race. Seconds ticked slowly. At 6:38 Mort called the bookie.

“How’d he do? Where did Knightly News finish?” Mort was erratic. Inside raged a confusing optimism. There was something about that tip, about the way he found it, the ridiculousness that screamed for a reward. It was the turnaround, the great, promised pivot. He did his time. He worked hard. Mort wasn’t listening for the answer; he knew Knightly News won.

Mort didn’t know a thoroughbred from a Shetland pony. With the five grand he laid, he could have bought that pistol Andre alluded to. And if he’d had anything left after Knightly News tumbled in last, he’d have bought it, loaded it up, and used it.

Mercury Virus

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

A white door sealed shut ended the narrow hall. No windows. No light lined the frame. Airtight. Out was kept out and in kept in. The floor to the stronghold was polished to a mirrored sheen, reflecting ceiling in high definition.

Two guards flanked the door. They did not move. They could not hear the conversation.

Inside was a long table of seamless mahogany. How the piece fit through the door was a mystery contemplated in private moments. Occupying the high back, leather chairs were the faces of power.

“So, what is the Board of Health saying?” the man at the head asked, wrinkling his silly putty forehead.

“Thank you Mr. President. The infectious disease center, called me a few hours ago. They’ve run the vaccine through about eighty patients after an extensive application to rats. Of those eighty, all eighty reported full recoveries,” said the woman in red.

“So we have it, right?” another asked. He was the tallest by a foot. The primary source of his height was in the torso. His hair was extremely short and peppered with gray, but his hamster mustache was jet black.

The woman nodded. “We have it.”

“Then why are we here? We should be rolling it out.”

A septuagenarian with half-moon glasses cleared his throat. “Not so fast. We have to consider our options.”

“The options are pretty clear. We have a vaccine that’s highly effective, and the Mercury Virus is spreading rapidly. If we don’t inoculate the population, millions of people will die. What choice is there to be made?” Margaret asked.

The glasses cleared his throat once more with a chilling chuckle. “You’re perspective is admirable.”

“Don’t patronize me!”

“From the numbers I’m looking at, rolling out this vaccine would be exorbitantly expensive, and—“

He was interrupted, “Now is not the time to squabble over pennies and dimes. Do you have any idea what our defense budget is now? And this, this medication will have a direct effect on saving lives. It’s nothing amorphous like, ‘defense against threats,’ or whatever crap you all are peddling at the military these days.”

The man at the head of the table, opened his mouth, and everyone went silent. “I admire the enthusiasm. But we need to listen. Before any decisions are made I want to know all the options. We should all know as much as we can.”

“Thank you, Mr. President. As I was saying, it’s going to be expensive, and the logistics will be a nightmare. But beyond that, we need to ask ourselves if we want to vaccinate the population. Our unemployment rate is at a record high, inflation is taking off, homelessness is rampant, and we’ve talked for years about a population that’s growing and aging more rapidly than we can keep pace.”

“What are you saying?” The woman with proud shoulders and silver hoop earrings cried out indignantly.

“Don’t be so naïve!” The man barked back.

“Oh please! We all know what you’re saying. But be a man! Don’t dance around. Say it!”

He paused. All eyes were trained on him, including the President’s, which squinted to focus. “Let me ask you all a question. Would it be the worst thing for our country? If we weren’t so… crowded.”

“Damnit, just say it! You’re suggesting we let millions of people die. We have the vaccine in our hands. She just told us how well it works and the good it can do, and you want us to lock it up and throw away the key while our citizens drop dead in the streets!”

To that, he had no reply. He crossed his arms, and sat back in the chair, which creaked mechanically.

“You can’t be serious…” the woman in red asked rhetorically.

A man who’s face was so thin his eyes almost faced outward raised his hand. “I don’t like this any more than any of you. But we can’t completely discredit what he’s saying. The cost is one consideration, but our population growth is a very real and pressing crisis. Mr. President?”

Heads turned slowly to meet his quizzical expression. “You know more about the Mercury Virus than anyone in this room. Give it to us straight. What would happen if we administered the vaccine nationally? And what would happen… if we didn’t?”

The woman in red looked at the papers before her, but she didn’t read anything. She knew what they said. It was a simple question. The decision at hand should be based on empirical evidence and moral principles.

“Conservatively, we can say the vaccine is seventy-five percent effective. So, if 4 million people catch the Mercury Virus, which is the current mid-range estimate based on spread and behavior to this point, than a thorough vaccination will likely result in 3 million people saved. That’s the death of one million.” She paused. Even those we had not spoken up listened intently. “And if we don’t release the vaccine? Of those four million? Four million will die agonizing deaths. The fatality rate is one hundred percent. That’s Queens or Brooklyn, two Manhattans, wiped off the map.”

The President turned to the man at his left. He was the youngest in the room, head shaved on the sides, a shimmering brown waft glued in a wave across the top. His lapels were thin, his tie equally deprived. But the trappings covered a strong figure. “So?”

“I’ve been talking about the population crisis for years. The way I see it, the Mercury Virus is a blessing in disguise. Call it divine intervention.” His voice was deep and sure.

Hoop earrings danced violently as the woman stood up, her chair striking the wall. “The fact that we are even having a discussion when we could be out there right now saving lives is an abomination. If the people heard what we are saying now, they would be sick. They would kill us, and they should. There is no choice here. We have an obligation to protect human life.”

Everyone hoped another would speak first. Caught in a silence both short and unending, not a word was spoken.

“Mr. President, you have to think about your campaign too. A health crisis happens, that can’t be stopped. But then you rally a broken country after it sweeps through. Unemployment disappears. Suddenly we have surpluses where there were deficits…” His left hand man spoke with sharpened directness, straightening the knot of his tie.

At the head of the table, the president drove his head into his hands, rubbing his temples radially as he tried to tune everything out.

“You have the vaccine with you now, don’t you?”

“Enough doses to vaccinate everyone in this room,” the woman in red replied.

“Would you be so kind?”

She went around the room, motioning for each cabinet member to roll up his or her shirt. After a quick alcohol swab she inserted a needle and administered the clear, life-saving liquid.

Peaking out from the president’s blazer were burnished copper cufflinks, miniature Empire State buildings. He ran his fingers over the shapes, the corners and imperfections. Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, they streaked across his memory like flying stars, each ending in an explosion. He guided his thumb around the perimeter of the building slowly, and then he went top to bottom, side to side.

“Thank you. All of you. For your counsel. The Mercury Virus is horrific, a global health tragedy. We’ve seen and heard what it can do and has done. The virus is not just a local issue for our country,” he said with speech poeticism. “We will recover, because that’s what we do as a nation. From the most difficult of times, we always emerge stronger. This virus spread so quickly.” The president took a long pause during which he rolled a short, perfectly sharpened Ticonderoga between his fingers. He didn’t look anyone in the eye. Instead he stared at the wall as he spoke, “There just wasn’t enough time…”

With that he stood up and pulled his jacket sleeves down to hide the copper reminders.

In the Tree Lies Beyond

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“If you go through, you will never return.”

The wind doesn’t blow at the lowest reaches of the vines in the rainforest. Though skirting across the canopy like a running fire, only whiffs make it to the floor, mere whispers of ghastly souls waft near that ground dense with the detritus of millennia. Animals howl in stereo, chitting and chatting, snickering and screeching. Deeper and deeper we cut ourselves through the Amazonian madness. She closed the doors behind, growing back ten-fold stronger. We could hardly place breadcrumbs before they were masticated and spit out, blurring our trail into the abyss.

We were given a seemingly simple task, the kind that when written down are straightforward and achievable: map this portion of the rainforest. Our directive came from the high ups in the House of Commons, but I presume it was inspired by the intellectual curiosity of the House of Lords. Nary a commoner cares for the hot, humid, Brazilian landscape.

Three of our crew, a small outfit from the start, succumbed to various diseases. Horrible in their symptoms, we were glad in the end to see them close their eyes, for in so doing they were released from the grip of terror. Only two remain, my guide and myself. João, a Brazilian by birth, is an Englander at heart. His English is better than many Englishmen I came across at university, and his understanding of these wicked weeds is unrivaled.

There was rumor of a small tribe living in the area we intended to survey. João had a hidden sense about those sorts of things. He was convinced we would be confronted upon arrival.

“The people who live there, in these places. They don’t want to be found. They are constantly running, escaping from the world closing in around them.”

“Will they be hostile?”

“We are going into their home without invitation.”

I saw his point clearly. Heat in the Amazon is not similar to that felt in the summer streets of cramped London. It eats you out from the inside, makes you smell as though you are slowly decomposing. There is no reprieve. Only minimal light filters down, sparkling like diamonds. I often look up and dream of climbing to the top of one of the fantastic trees and looking out over the landscape. Seeing the sun again and a sky of blue or gray, any color as long as it was devoid of vegetation.

Rumors it seems are sometimes true, because we did eventually reach our destination and were greeted with startling immediacy by an unusual tribe of people. Their hair was cut like wigs, the same adorning each, paint decorating their exposed bodies with dark colors and unfamiliar shapes. We were not so much welcomed to join them at their dwellings as we were compelled by the sharp protrusions on their staffs.

Fortunately for us, João was proficient enough in their hand signals to communicate our intent and diffuse tensions. When he described to them our desire to draw the topography and survey the black spot on our map the tribesmen looked at on another disapprovingly.

“Tell them it is imperative,” I said. “And let them know we will make no mention of them in our report. If privacy is their concern.”

It was difficult to read the leader of the tribe, a man whose status was derived from a heavy knobbed walking stick and the rather large pedestal on which he sat. He was the sole member in possession of a headdress. As a subject of Her Majesty, I am well versed in the significance of replacing one’s bowler with a ceremonial piece. As we waited for a decision, I wondered if we would make it out alive. It would be well within their rights to chop us to bits there on the spot. Aside from the discomfort of such an affair, I sympathized without objection.

“He will show us,” João said. “But there is something… something terrible? There is darkness there. He warns us not to go.”

“Please tell him we accept his offer. And we will be vigilant.” I tried my best to keep composure. The warning shook João. It was my responsibility to keep our heads on the level. With moss-stained hands I pulled my knife from my pocket, khaki long ago turned soot black. I offered it to the leader who nodded for his companion to accept.

“They will take us,” João said.

“Thank you,” I replied, unsure of how best to show my respect. I bowed, and conveyed the desired effect. The leader gave us a very stern look indeed when we departed. His eyes dug through to my innermost being, connecting with me spiritually. I could hear him saying, “goodbye, forever.”

João and I took measurements as we passed across the barrier of the thick rubber trees and spider webs the size of quilts, dotted with scurrying beasts and trapped insects like fists. Aside from the tribe, we were the first to see that place, to feel the bark, taste the grit of the moist air. I looked up from my notebook to see our guide pointing at the largest tree I’d ever encountered. Measuring no less than ten meters in diameter, it resembled more closely the base of a cliff than a forest resident.

The short man, much older than João and I combined, motioned for us to accompany him to the other side of the enormous trunk. As we did the birds ceased calling. I no longer heard the crunch of critters beneath my muddied boots. Not even that whispering air, which crept through vines, followed us. A smell, pungent like death under a cloud of incense welcomed us on the other side.

What I saw there cannot be accurately expressed in words. No picture would capture the scene to the full extent. Rippling like the waters of an otherwise still pond, a blackness large as a postal box. Swirling slowly in its far reaches were the twinkling stars of clear nights, nights away from the smog of London, out in the country where the world breaths freely.

“What is it?” I asked.

João recovered his faculties sufficiently. Our man was deliberate in his gestures, repeating the same sequence over with precise movements.

“What’s he saying, João?” I asked.

“If you go through, you will never return.”

I took out my notebook, the one in which these notes are scribed, and wrote these final lines. I told João to remain. The duty was mine not his, for Queen and country. Beyond those responsibilities I had curiosity to satisfy. After all, an adventurer at heart I have always been and will always be. I am now to step into the brilliantly swirling unknown, wandering, like Carroll’s Alice, into the beauty of other worlds.

 

Dutifully,

Edward Blakely