Miguelito

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@jameswyngaarden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Miguelito answered.

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

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

The Last Monk of Laboche

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@babyboyjw c.2019

a short story by Jerry Zinn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mildred

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

“I don’t know. I think her teachers are fine. Jenny’s just having difficulty engaging with her classmates. It’s hard for her,” Mary said.

“Well Mary, that’s understandable. You know our girls are at that age now where they are starting to figure things out,” Taylor replied, disregarding the suggestion of Jenny’s hardship. “Take Lucy for example. Two weeks ago I was trying to get her to go to sleep and I said, ‘Lucy, it’s time to go to bed. You have to wake up early tomorrow for school.’ And you know what she said? ‘No, I’m going to stay up later. I can just call in sick tomorrow.’ That’s is what I’m dealing with, and she’s only seven,” Taylor said.

“I can sympathize, but I can’t empathize,” added Sally. “Taking care of a seven-year-old boy is like taking care of a pet sometimes, and I’m guessing Andrew will continue to act this age for at least three more years. When he makes noises at the table, sometimes I wish he were making sarcastic comments like Lucy. I just want him to say stuff Will and I can laugh about, but he’s not giving us much to work with.”

“It is good though that we make time for all of them to play together like this,” said Mary.

“Absolutely, how many of them are we supposed to be watching anyway?” Taylor asked jokingly as she head-counted seven kids exploring the community park.

It was a brisk day, but the warm sun permeated the splotchy cloud cover to take the edge off. The jungle gym, with its yellow and green bars, ladders, slides, and unclassifiable structures, shined brightly over the cushy rubber padding beneath, as Jenny, Lucy, Andrew, and four other like-minded children weaved their way in and out of parental surveillance. The three mothers designated to officiate the leisure sat on one of the park’s bench and continued talk of their children and the school, along with comments of spousal annoyance.

“Hide and seek,” Lucy said perched atop the highest platform.

“Yeah I’ll play,” Andrew added.

“What about you guys?” Lucy asked the remaining kids. Her question was met with unanimous yeses, and the proceedings commenced.

“Who’s going to be it?” Jeff asked from underneath the slide.

“I’ll be it first,” offered Andrew. “I’ll count to fifty.” Andrew covered his face loosely, allowing some visual information to slip through the cracks in his fingers as he began to count, “One, two…”

“Wait!” Hannah called out from the ground, “Let me just finish tying my shoe!”

“Come on Hannah, hurry up!” Andrew yelled back.

“OK, geez! You wont find me anyway!”

“Whatever! One, two, three…”

As Andrew restarted, the kids sequestered themselves to the far reaches of the structure and its surrounding obstacles. Lucy ventured the furthest, managing to hide behind the mothers’ bench with the unspoken understanding they would protect her location. Jeff wandered in circles for half of the count with a frantic look on his face as he scanned the area for possible refuge. Finding none to his liking, he settled for a “hide in plain view” strategy, parking himself directly beneath the perforated platform atop which Andrew was standing.

“Fifty!” Andrew exclaimed, rising up and removing his less than exemplary blindfold. His modus operandi was apparent immediately, as he left the confines of the structure and hunted the playground extremities.

Lying at the end of the macaroni-elbow-shaped, plastic slide was Jenny. She stared at the hard shell cradling her body, its imperfections appearing opaque in an otherwise translucent material, as the sun heated her surroundings and made her so comfortable she wished she were never found. With her hands she felt the seam where the pieces were bolted together. It was smooth except for one coarse bump, which she rolled her fingers on over and over again, hoping to wear it down.

“Excuse me,” she heard a woman’s voice whisper from outside her hideout. “Excuse me,” it came through again.

Jenny sat up in the slide and popped her head out to investigate. As she looked around, her head stopped on a dime when she saw, flanked on either side by bushes, a purple monster covered in green stripes that zigged and zagged like recurring M’s and W’s. The monster’s head was green with larger than life features. Its eyes were wide and a soft hazel with a small nose and ear-to-ear smile. The beast didn’t scare Jenny, as she slowly pulled herself out and stood staring at it.

“May I talk to you for a minute?” the monster asked, waving her over.

Jenny didn’t answer, but she approached the strange thing, her head tilting side to side, enchanted with curiosity.

“What’s your name?” Jenny asked, now standing face to stomach with the monster.

The green and purple monster leaned its head down to Jenny’s level and answered, “Mildred. What’s yours?”

“Jenny,” she answered as she reached out to hug Mildred.

“It’s very nice to meet you Jenny and thank you for the hug; that was very kind.”

“Are you a monster?” Jenny asked.

“No, I’m not a monster.”

“Then what are you? I’ve never seen anything like you at the zoo.”

“You wouldn’t find any of us there. I’m a nimalfog.”

“A nimalfog? What is that?” she asked, giggling.

“Well what are you?”

“I’m a person.”

“What’s a person?” Mildred asked crossing her arms.

Lucy stood with pursed lips and laughed, “I don’t know! A person is just a person.”

“And a nimalfog is just a nimalfog.”

“Hm,” Jenny replied, nodding her head approvingly. “How come I haven’t seen you here before? My mom brings me to the park a lot.”

“I’ve never been to this park before. Recently I’ve been moving around, learning about new places, trying new things, and meeting other people like you.”

“That’s nice. I’m in first grade.”

“What is that?”

“School. It’s where they teach us stuff like math and how to read. But reading is hard.”

“I wish I could go to school. I would love to learn new things.”

“I can teach you if you want. I like the learning part, but sometimes my classmates and I don’t get along.”

“Why not? You seem like such a nice person.”

“They don’t understand me. I feel like we speak a different language.”

“That’s why you can communicate with me!”

“What do you mean? I’ve never talked to a nimalfog before. How can I speak it?”

“The language we speak isn’t like English or French. It’s based on something even more amazing, something unique to each and every thing. It’s called imagination, and you have to have a very special imagination to talk to me.”

“So I have a very special imagination?”

“Yes, Jenny, you do.”

“Sometimes I think people are upset with my imagination. Maybe that’s why I don’t get along with everyone.”

“You should never be ashamed of your imagination. It’s what makes you who you are. It lets you see things that other people can’t because their minds are too closed. You have a gift, Jenny!”

“I do?”

“Yes, you do. A rare gift at that,” Mildred replied.

“Found you, Jenny!” Andrew called from behind. Jenny turned around and frowned.

“Jenny! Time to go!” her mother called from the bench.

“Sorry, Mildred,” Jenny said hugging the nimalfog lovingly. “I hope I get to see you again, but now I need to go. It was nice to meet you!”

“It was nice to meet you too, Jenny. Goodbye!” Mildred answered.

“Mary,” Sally said putting her hand on Mary’s shoulder, “Andrew told me he found Jenny hugging and talking to a bush behind the park. He said she was kind of… mumbling.”

“She does seem to communicate more with things around her than with people. The doctor told us to expect that with autism. But you know the doctor said it to us like he was delivering a terrible diagnosis. I like to think that Jenny gets to experience things we don’t. I often wish I could see what’s going on inside her head. I’m sure something amazing is happening in there, something we could never imagine,” Mary said.

The kids clustered around their drivers until all of them were divided between the three cars. Jenny gave her mother a hug and climbed into the way back of the van. She liked the back because it was her own space. As Mary backed up, she looked lovingly at Jenny in the rearview mirror, who was quietly having a joyful conversation. Mary tried to hear what Jenny was saying but she couldn’t quite figure it out. She thought Jenny said something about a “nimalfog?” But Mary decided she probably misheard, after all, there’s no such thing.

Other Side

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

“The grass is greener on the other side.” It’s a phrase said by many but truly understood by few. People have said it to me, people who haven’t the slightest appreciation of the meaning.

When I sat down in the hard plastic chair, I tied my shoes slowly. Almost like I was tying them for the first time even though I’d done it thousands of times before. If Law & Order is a reliable source, I had jamais vous. I stood up and moved my feet around, enjoying the comfort of the shoes’ padding. But the enjoyment was short-lived. As I looked to my wrist for the time I became nervous and then slipped from nervous to nauseous. Seeing my wrist bare I patted my pockets in rapid succession.

Scanning the room I was relieved to see my gold watch, with it’s worn, hazelnut strap, resting atop an old issue of TIME Magazine on the coffee table. The timepiece was my father’s, the only remembrance I have of him other than a few choppy memories from toddler days, really just pictures I’ve seen that directed the blips. Even though his impact in my life was small, his watch is the most valuable possession I have, and I don’t think it’d be worth a damn thing at a pawnshop. After all it’s fake.

I threaded the strap through the buckle and pulled until I could slip the stem through the prescribed hole, raised from repetitive use. Then I looked at the face but didn’t bother to read the time; I just wanted the comfort of seeing it. On my way to the door I stopped. Something inside me kept my shoes glued to the floor, and I couldn’t bring myself to move forward. I turned my head and looked back out of the corner of my eye and felt a confusing sense of nostalgia.

“Keep going,” I heard, or maybe just imagined.

I reached for the knob and felt the cold metal on my hand, or perhaps I only pretended it was cold, through my thick callouses. Achingly, the door creaked as I crossed the threshold and stepped outside onto the path. The sun was bright in the sky, brighter than I’d ever known it to be. Slowly I made my way down the path, each step carrying the weight of a milestone. As I approached the end, the fence door opened like a blooming flower with the breeze. Again I found myself paralyzed, and again I heard, “Keep going.”

As if stepping into another dimension, the world around me changed fantastically as I went through the aperture. The fence door swung shut behind me with a jangle. In the sky I didn’t see a shade of blue; I saw open and limitless space. The clouds were not puffs of white cotton dotting the sky; they were passengers on the wind, caught in a migration from one part of the world to another. Even the breeze took on a different meaning. As it washed over my arms, below the rolled cuffs of my beaten button down, I sensed not its pleasant freshness, but the warmth of its welcoming embrace. Through the rustling of the leaves, a couple birds chirped in an orchestrated call and response intended only for me. It was as if the world and I were being introduced after years of exchanging letters.

The fragrance of freshly mowed grass brought tears to my eyes with its soothing aroma. With hesitation I brought my gaze down to meet the source, and yes, the grass was greener. It was greener than it had ever been, greener than any of the sorrowful grass I’d seen in ten years behind that prickled fence, behind that cold-knobbed door, and behind those unforgiving bars.

For My Dearest Jim

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artwork by @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The cold brakes of the bus screamed in front of Wellworth’s while Anne Parkhurst adjusted her white gloves and repositioned the pillbox hat on her carefully set hair. As she stood up she did her best to smooth out the creases in her dress, some refusing to disappear after settling on the hour journey. The bus driver tipped his cap as she exited onto the sidewalk, stepping over the mound of snow. Lining the streets, tinsel trees of silver and gold glistened from the streetlights even in the grayness of the day, throwing sparkles onto the path. A gust of lake effect greeted her as she cautiously navigated the sidewalk. Instinctively she pulled the fabric of her threadbare jacket close around her neck, hoping to create a tighter seal.

Anne approached the large doors of the front entrance with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” emanating from the speakers above, a man dressed as Santa Claus providing backup bells by the bright-red Salvation Army bucket. Anne rummaged through her purse for some spare change for Saint Nick. She found eight quarters and, recognizing she’d need five for the ride home, plucked out three and inserted them in the slot with metallic clangs. She turned toward the store but stopped. She only needed one dollar to get home. Anne’s good nature wouldn’t allow her to proceed until she donated her remaining spare quarter, adding 25 more cents to his collection.

The last five years had been trying for Anne and her husband. In 1955 a quarter was a quarter, but she knew there were still others who needed the money more than she. Anne had worked hard to earn a day of vacation for Christmas shopping, and the two-hour round-trip journey, and the purchase she was in town to make, would put an even bigger strain on her finances. But she also understood that hers was an important mission. She earmarked a small percentage of her wages each month to buy a special gift for her husband Jim, because Anne knew Jim would never spend any of their savings on himself.

The doorman greeted Anne with a big smile, and he brought the heavy door to a close behind her, shutting out the harshness and enveloping her in the Christmas spirit hanging from every ledge of the department store. A manager, dressed in a well-fitting suit and tie, came up to her. “Here for some Christmas shopping?” he asked politely.

“I’m here for something very particular, for my husband,” Anne answered as she opened the clasp on her purse and pulled out a folded page torn from a periodical. “Perhaps you can tell me where I might find this?”

“Ah wonderful, if you’d please follow me, Mrs…?”

“Parkhurst.”

“Mrs. Parkhurst, my name is Gregory. Let me take you to the proper department,” he said, inviting her to board the escalator bound for the second story. Anne was captivated by the array of lights and ornaments that made her feel like she was moving through the stars. She always stood up a little straighter and talked a little more formal when she made the rare trip downtown, and so mindfully she improved her posture. Anne looked down at her dress and tried again to wrestle out the creases, unsuccessfully.

“Mrs. Parkhurst, this is Miss Rubinstein. She will be glad to assist you in making your purchase and with anything else you may need. Merry Christmas,” Gregory said, excusing himself.

“Thank you and Merry Christmas to you too.”

“Mrs. Parkhurst,” Miss Rubinstein began, “How may I help you?”

Anne returned to her purse and produced the advertisement she pulled from a magazine at the beginning of the year. Anne realized material possessions were not of paramount importance, but the message behind the gift was, and so she saved up the exact amount she needed and took the day off for the trip to downtown Cleveland to make the purchase. She knew how hard Jim worked at the bank. He’d been forced to work harder and to put in longer hours since the lay-offs, and he had been passed over for a promotion a second, and a third time. Jim Parkhurst was among the last people who needed to be told life wasn’t fair.

As a banker, one of the most important factors to success was being presentable. Jim had a rotation of three suits, constantly in need of mending; a handful of ties, handed down from his father; and a watch that stopped working a year ago, but he still wore it to look the part. Twice a day, as he often joked to Anne, he could provide the right time when asked. At the office, he constantly looked at the wall clock so if he were ever asked, he could pretend to read it off his wrist.

“I have the model right here,” Miss Rubinstein said, sliding the glass backing and drawing out the watch. It’s hands, numerals, and bezel were all gold, and the face pearl white. A black strap of leather bound the timepiece to the cushion in the case.

“It’s perfect,” Anne said. A thousand times she imagined Jim putting it on, wearing it confidently to the office, and the image made her happy. Anne pulled out an envelope from her bag and handed it to Miss Rubinstein with the exact amount printed on the tag.

“Would you like it engraved, Mrs. Parkhurst?”

It would be, Anne thought, a great personal touch. But she realized she had no more money to spend. “How much would it cost?”

“Engraving is $1.”

Without a split-second of hesitation, Anne pulled out the four remaining quarters designated as her fare home and handed them to Miss Rubinstein. “Please write ‘For My Dearest Jim.’”

“Of course, Mrs. Parkhurst. I’ll just give the watch to our engraver,” Miss Rubinstein answered, as she stepped away from the desk, disappearing into the back room.

Anne wondered at the decorations and the teems of people moving about in a beautifully spontaneous dance. They too were buying gifts for loved ones, trying to make the season special. As she stood in awe, she pictured the expression on her husband’s face on Christmas morning, when he unwrapped the watch. She knew that image would keep her warm on the long, cold, walk home.

Sunday Sam’s Last Stand

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artwork by @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Sam let out a grunt, grabbing his left shoulder in pain. His cream color shirt was dripping in the maraschino blood seeping steadily from the fresh bullet wound. He tore off his sleeve and tied it around the injury to help stem the bleeding while using his leg to straighten himself up against the corner of the adobe walls, spurs jingling on the heels of his life-beaten leather boots.

“Poetic, isn’t it?” The words came from below and behind a distant wall. Sam flashed a quick glance around the edge from his perch, holed up in the bell tower of the white washed Spanish church of St. Sebastian. A bullet took a chunk from the edge of the structure near his face and threw some plaster dust into his eyes, causing him to recoil. In the brief look, Sam was able to discern where the sheriff and his two deputies were settled.

“Sunday Sam,” the sheriff continued, “picked a church for his last stand, and on Sunday afternoon no less. It’s almost like the good Lord planned it. You’ve knocked off eight banks from here to the Mississippi, and you’ve still got the audacity to show up in church every week. I can’t quite figure if you’re a God-fearing man or if you think weekly service somehow absolves you of your sins. Well I’m done chasing you, Sunday. You’re only leaving that church one of two ways: walking out in handcuffs or in the box I had made up for ya. It’s up to you. There’s three of us and, at two guns a piece, that’s six barrels lookin’ for your head or your heart.”

Sam heard the sheriff but the message didn’t faze him. He pulled his revolvers from their holsters and slipped out the bullets from his belt to fill them. The wooden handles had crosses carved deep like crevasses, something he’d done over a bottle of whiskey one lonely night in Nevada. A fine job he thought, professional-like. With his uninjured arm, Sam reached for his hat, a light brown wide-brim decorated with sweat stains and the same dust that filled his lungs.

He leaned forward and affixed it to his head, mopping the moisture from his forehead with his remaining sleeve. Even in the seclusion of the tower, the sun was inescapable, branding the drenched arm hairs to his skin. Without looking, Sam pointed one of the revolvers through an opening and took a shot, a puff of smoke quickly dissolving in the dry breeze. He counted eight blasts of return fire, and by the sound he could tell none of the men were any closer to the church.

Convinced of his momentary safety, Sam reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigar, damp with perspiration but still dry enough to light. He struck a match on the hardened mud and took a deep draw, the tip curling to accept the flame. As he smoked, Sam looked at the large bell hanging above, its thick rope dangling to the ground. The bell was simple but large, a cast bronze with the year of its installation fastened to the side in raised numbers: 1817. His teeth dug into the end of the cigar, freeing a bit of the tobacco, which he fished for with his tongue and spat onto the planks under his soles. In spite of the predicament, Sam was calm, and his mind drifted. He wondered how heavy the bell was and how many men it took to raise it up.

“Hell of a time for a smoke, Sunday!” the sheriff called out with a chuckle. A sly smirk worked its way across Sam’s face. He took a drag and tilted his head back, opening up so the smoke could scale to the roof and dissipate. Then he tossed the cigar out the tower, and a few shots fired. It was a good sign, Sam thought. They were nervous.

“Well? What do you say, Sunday? You don’t want the next time you go to church to be for your own funeral, do you?” There was impatience in the sheriff’s voice. Sam yawned, scratching his bristled neck and grasping the red bandana at his throat.

“How tall are you, sheriff?” Sam yelled.

“What’s that?” the sheriff replied, confused.

“Just wonderin’ if I’m taller than you.”

“What difference does that make?”

“I was just thinking we could put you in that coffin you had made. No reason it should go to waste.”

“I didn’t realize you had a considerate side, Sunday.”

“Sheriff, if you think I’m gonna surrender myself to you, you’re even more of a God damn fool than most in your profession. And about every one I’ve met I’ve turned to dust.”

“You should be more careful with your language son. You are in church after all.”

Sam stood up and kept his back glued to the corner, wincing at the sharp, throbbing shoulder pain. “Why don’t you and your boys join me? The service is about to start,” he teased.

“Joe,” the sheriff whispered, “you head up to the well quickly. Abe and I’ll cover you.” Joe looked back skeptically.

“You sure?” Joe asked.

“Look, Sunday’s not budging. Our only chance is to get into the church, so we got to get over there in stages. Now we’ll cover you. Just keep low and try to be swift and quiet about it,” the sheriff responded. Joe’s insecurities remained as he looked over the wall and saw the well halfway between the church and his refuge. Back in the tower, Sam was considering his options. He knew he couldn’t go down; his shoulder was done for, unable support the weight to lower himself.

Joe inched around the corner of the wall and, gripping his rifle tightly, he bent over and shuffled towards the distant stone watering hole. Sam crouched down and extended for the rope, giving it a strong tug. The bell rang out loudly as it swayed, the large clapper inside clanging against the cast frame. The sheriff and Abe fired a few shots each and Joe froze where he was, panicky eyes set on the tower and its swaying mechanism.

Sam took a breath, raised both of his revolvers, and turned the corner to see Joe stuck in no man’s land. Faster than any of the three law-enforcers could think, Sam fired a shot from each pistol at Joe and ducked to the other side as the replies whizzed by.

“Joe?” the sheriff called out. When no response came, he peeked over and saw Joe lying motionless on the ground, his head an unappetizing bowl of ground meat. “God damn it. Joe’s dead,” he said. The color flushed out of Abe’s face when he heard the words, and it fell to his toes when he got a look for himself. Sam stealthily glanced at his handiwork.

“It’s too bad about Joe, sheriff. Why don’t you and your other little friend go home now while you still have each other,” Sam said, loading more bullets into the rotaries. “Maybe order a bottle of hooch and hold hands.”

“You’re going straight to hell when I’m through with you, Sunday!” the sheriff yelled.

“That’s quite a prophecy, preacher,” Sam replied. “Didn’t know you were ordained.”

The sheriff turned to Abe and motioned with his head for Abe to try where their comrade had failed. Abe shook his head in refusal, his shock over Joe’s demise still fresh on his sunken cheeks. The sheriff read Abe’s expression and loosened his lips.

“We’ll both go at the same time,” he said, which seemed to settle Abe. Sam let out a deep breath and closed his eyes, cocking back the hammers on the nickel-plated guns in effortless synchronization. A piece of leftover cigar made its presence known in the back of his mouth, and he chewed it a little, extracting the peppery spice from its fibers. Almost as quickly as his bullets, Sam darted across the opening, saw the sheriff and his remaining deputy, and fired. One of the bullets struck the bucket hanging above the well, and water gushed out the hole. The other shot caught Abe in the neck, and he collapsed to the ground. The sheriff threw himself against the stones of the well and looked back at his fallen deputy. Abe gripped at his wound, but the sheriff recognized there was nothing either man could do. He knew his partner would bleed out in a matter of seconds. The sheriff sat still as a boulder, watching helplessly as he lost his second man of the day.

The sting in Sam’s shoulder was intensifying, and the sensation radiated. Blood was coming through the makeshift bandage, and he knew he needed to end the standoff soon and find a way to get himself medical attention if he was to stay out of the made-to-measure coffin.

“You’re going to have to be speedier than that, sheriff.”

“Those were two good men, Sunday. Your body count’s not going to help you where you’re going.”

Good men? Good at what?”

The sheriff stood up slowly and pointed his rifle at the bell. He didn’t respond to Sam’s jab. He remained focused. For the first time, fear sent chills over Sam’s body, a strange freeze in the hot New Mexico summer. The sensation was foreign, and he almost didn’t recognize it. Since it was one of the few things he’d never experienced, he was able to identify it by process of elimination, knowing, for example, that he hadn’t just fallen in love. His palms secreted sweat and loosened their hold on the cross-embellished handles. With the tip of a barrel, he pushed up on the brim of his hat and let it fall behind.

“You’ve made your decision,” the sheriff said without flinching, the intensity of his words weighing uncomfortably on Sam’s ears.

“How’s that?”

“There’s only one way you’re leaving that church now: sealed up in a pine envelope.”

“Envelope? Well I’m not much for writing, and I damn sure ain’t much for dying.”

Sam prepared himself for one more move. He took a deep breath in and out and said, “It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you over the years, sheriff. I’ll be sure to lay a flower by your gravestone.” Immediately after he finished speaking, Sam turned, and three shots went off. One of Sam’s bullets hit the sheriff in the leg, the other struck the dirt, and the force of the sheriff’s shot threw Sunday Sam back toward the bell. As he fell down the tower, Sam reached for the rope, and when he struck the ground, the bell tolled.

“I hate flowers,” the sheriff said to the audience of emptiness, grabbing his leg and hobbling toward the church, the bell still singing its somber song. He threw open the doors and stumbled into the aisle, a simple wooden crucifix hanging nobly on the altar. The sheriff looked to his left and saw Sunday Sam on the ground, head turned the other way, rope still swinging above his body. As the sheriff made his way over with labored steps he could hear the sounds of several horses riding in from the distance. It was his backup, conveniently and substantially tardy. Slowly, Sam’s head rolled over to face the sheriff. Sam looked him straight in the eyes and winked with his last exhale.

“Sheriff? You all right?” one of the men said as he dismounted and entered the church.

“Yeah, I just got shot in the leg. I’ll go see Doc Otto first thing. I guess you saw we’re going to need to more coffins out here?”

“What about Sunday Sam?”

The sheriff pointed his nose to the lifeless body and added dryly, “Sunday Sam got his last rights.”

La Fontaine

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Processed with VSCO with b1 preset

artwork by @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The air had the chilled nip of a kiss from an early spring mistral in the French countryside. Paul Van Dyke stood, Bordeaux in hand, at the top of the elevated patio overlooking the endless stretch of fastidiously manicured grounds. Van Dyke felt the cold touch of the breeze against the back of his neck like a stroke from the hand of a siren, receding into the imaginary sea forthwith. He took a sip from the glass and allowed the full body of the wine to roll the fullness of its body around his tongue, its alcoholic constitution a welcome radiance as it made passage. His wrist turned naturally in the constant search of temporal awareness, but he recognized and ignored the inclination to check his timepiece.

The button of his expensively tailored, black wool suit was unfastened, and he thumbed it through the hole as he walked slowly down the stone steps, his arrival at the base marked by the crunch of the fine, white gravel. He proceeded forward with a deliberate lack of pace, placing his hand on the weathered stone ledge feeling the small pores and imperfections as he slid along. The boxwoods lining the long network of green and gravel lines were geometrically flawless as though he were inside a famous diamond, and from his distance the network’s constituents appeared solid as Italian marble. He came toe to toe with the fairway-length lawn, its alternating light and dark green stretching from the caps of his polished oxfords to the horizon point where they met in the distance. The spray of the fountain shot up and fell down continuously, creating the illusion of a transparent tree of water growing forth from the discolored pedestal.

Right or left? That was the decision to be made in order for him to continue without infringing upon the blades of sacred Poaceae. Van Dyke allowed his feet to choose for him, following their heading to the right. Each subsequent, crackling meeting of his leather soles with the tiny stones brought him closer to the somber expression on the Grecian statue who called the garden home, her head turned as if preventing her gaze from falling upon him. With the brilliant canopy of trees stretching to the sky chirping from within, Van Dyke fell into unpleasantness. He had no one to blame but himself for the position in which he was immovably set. After all, he had taken the money, and with that he signed away the luxury of a clean conscience. He finally understood that he wouldn’t be able to eat the cake he had collected, an annoying cliché, frustratingly fulfilled.

As Van Dyke followed the sharp angle of the path, forcing him nearer the fountain, he heard but could not see the plane overhead, remaining as it did, hidden behind the peppered gray matching the shade of his hair. Initially he wished to be aboard the plane instead of where he was, but he struck down the thought with the remembrance that actions have consequences, and those couldn’t be avoided or escaped, only faced as in duels belonging to earlier times. Regrets were poisonous, poisonous as Botrytis blight and just as difficult to treat, Van Dyke thought as he turned another corner and walked to the bench, placed equidistant from the parallel sides of the garden. He stood between the bench and the fountain circled with lavender. Van Dyke could never go back and undo the damage he’d done, the greed to which he succumbed was like spilled soup never to be fully returned to bowl. In his business dealings he became well acquainted with the valuation of land, and to his disgust he also knew his own price, to the cent.

With glass in hand, he felt the gentle mist of the peripheral fountain water brushing against his face. What’s done is done, he mused as he took another appreciative sip of the vintage 2003. Over the years, Van Dyke often stood in the very spot in which he found himself, and presently its familiar comforts were no less familiar or comforting. He closed his eyes and welcomed in the subtly aromatic lavender with none of the artificial enhancements added in reproductions.

“Mr. Van Dyke.” The introduction did not startle him; he knew it was coming. Slowly he allowed his eyes to welcome back the splendor of his surroundings. Van Dyke set the glass down carefully on the moss-patched bench as he about-faced. He adjusted the cuffs of his starched shirt peeking out from his jacket sleeves.

Van Dyke didn’t feel the piercing metal bullet work its way through the infinitesimally thin fibers of the black wool fabric, past his pink silk pocket square, beyond more dermal barriers, and into his heart. He didn’t even hear the muffled pop of the shot through the suppressor. But Van Dyke could feel the life leaking out of his body, and each shuffled step backwards felt heavier as his balance began to fail him. While engaged in a rearward fall, the rippling, clear waters waiting to receive him, a strange thought came into his head given the circumstances: he hadn’t finished his glass of Bordeaux. It was an unfortunate, though appropriate way for him to go out, he thought, as the known world dissolved away.