Category: Fiction

Interlitq Publishes an Excerpt From “Roses and Thorns,” a Novel by Lauren O. Taskar

Roses and Thorns Excerpt

Chapter 5

At daybreak Nora walked into her bathroom and took a shower in preparation for work. She was thankful for the dress code. It wasn’t strict, so casual clothes could go except on days she had to teach or attend some boring meeting. Picking a red T-shirt and jeans from her ruthlessly organised closet, she dressed for work. She completed her look with her now favourite butterfly sandals and picked her bag.

Looking at herself in the mirror, her eyebrows creased in concentration…something seemed different. After what must have been two minutes of not being able to figure out what was different, she gave up and went downstairs to get breakfast, such was the extent of her patience.

Nora thought of how her feet had never looked cuter. She walked into the kitchen and got slammed in the face with the smell of cooked beans. “Oh mommy! I hate beans.”

Elna handed her a plate. “It’s protein, you need protein.”

“Fish is protein, why can’t we have grilled fish instead?”

With a snort Elna walked out of the kitchen. “Grill it and we can eat it together.”

Nora followed her, together they made their way to their long dining table and settled there for breakfast. Nora took her meds. “I’d have grilled it, but I’m not supposed to do anything stressful before I eat and take my drugs in the morning remember?”

“Grill it in the afternoon.”

“I’m at work in the afternoons.”

“Stay home and grill it.”

“And get fired? That’s bad parenting right there.”

“I cooked you a healthy breakfast, I’m a wonderful mother.”

“If I follow your advice and I get fired, the completion of this your uncompleted building would go slower because there won’t be money from my end …well when I start getting paid. Also, you’d have to keep burning money for my drugs and medical expenses as a good parent.”

Elna chuckled. “It’s not uncompleted, it’s a work in progress.”

“That’s just polished way of saying the same thing. Mommy the only internal rooms completed are yours, mine, the kitchen and the parlour…that’s uncompleted.” Nora looked around the parlour. “Hey! You’re stuffing things in here again, it’s getting stuffy! Ugh.”

Elna ignored Nora’s displeasure. “I have other children who can help.”

“Your other children are stingy.” Watching her mom laugh she continued, “your house is really taking shape though, congrats.”

Elna’s eyes lit with pleasure. “Keep quiet and eat your food,” she said, in mock reproof.

“Aye aye captain beans.”

Nora walked to work and thought about her job, the salary would allow her take care of her medical bills, contribute to her mom’s house and help with her upkeep. “Damn, I need this job.”

She thought of the three ladies she had to share her office with and sighed. Being able to work in a team and get along with colleagues were supposedly part of the performance evaluation, so she had to be some level of friendly. And people were shit. Nora growled. “What does team work have to do with anything? It’s not like we have to be all buddy buddy to handle necessities, sheesh.” She did not exactly have a good track record with female friends. Those ladies keep acting like they want to be all kumbaya, she thought, exhaling. She supposed if she suggested they braid each other’s hair, they would be all for it … what a bunch of weirdo’s. Her aim was to land somewhere between a polite stranger and a friendly but distant neighbour.

At the office door, Nora noticed it was already unlocked. Pushing it open she saw Ivy hunched over her laptop at her table. At six feet three, Ivy was thick with dark brown skin the colour of rich chocolate. Nora considered her to be pretty, not drop dead gorgeous, but somewhat pretty. She was funny, always discussing someone else’s life, had a loud laugh and could talk for hours without stop.

Nora made her way to her seat, opposite Ivy. “Ivy, good morning.”

“Hello pretty, how was your night.”

“I slept and woke up?”

“That’s the best way to do it.” Ivy’s gaze narrowed on Nora’s face. “You have this glow about you today, how come?”

“Huh?”

“You look like you had a good night. Did you have one?”

“I don’t know, did I?”

“Yes you did.”

Nora thought of the episode of stomach pain she’d had earlier and decided Ivy was delusional. “Well ok.”

“It’s pretty.”

Nora brought her textbook on introduction to business out of her bag. “Thanks I guess…maybe I’m about to be pregnant. I hear women glow during pregnancy, mine could be pre-pregnancy glow.”

“Wow no frown with the thanks today, progress.”

The corners of Nora’s lips twitched. “I don’t frown when complimented.”

“No, just every other time. People fear you, are you aware?”

“I’ve worked here just two weeks, that’s not enough time to fear someone.”

“Two weeks and three days.”

Nora eyed Ivy. “Is there a reason you know the exact number of days?”

Ivy chuckled. “I’m not a crazy stalker, ok? Don’t stab me with your eyes. “My period ended the day you started work, I’m dreading its return.”

Nora snorted. “Oh …ok that’s scary.”

“Your cold countenance chases colleagues away. Granted some just want you to be nice so they can take a shot but still, you could be nicer.”

Nora wondered what stapling Ivy’s mouth would look like, the girl was all opinions this morning. “Aren’t all the men here married?”

“Your point is?”

“Ew, gross!”

Ivy chuckled.

“I’d heat myself up before coming in tomorrow. Is there a reason I should be toasty to people?”

“You realise the review board consider the opinions of your HOD—head of department—the departmental staff, colleagues, and students right?”

Nora sighed. “Yeah, but I’m polite, doesn’t that count?”

“Yes, for departmental staff, those women think you’re very respectful and have good home training.”

Nora pointed at Ivy and smiled. “See?!”

“You need the colleagues on your side too, I can help you with the students.”

Nora gave Ivy a considering look.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Ivy slammed her laptop shut. “Talk.”

Nora chuckled. “Did you have to close the laptop that hard?! It could have cracked your screen!”

“It’s already cracked, an extra crack won’t be the worst thing.”

“Oh? Who cracked it?”

“I don’t know, but I tell people it’s my daughter.” Ivy wove her hand. “Save me the lecture ok? She’s young no one would give her the stop being careless speech.”

“You get the speech often?”

“Of course. Stop stalling … especially after I probably just added another crack to my screen.”

Nora chuckled. “It’s no big deal! It’s just … the short period I’ve been here I’ve noticed students always coming to see you with their issues. And they vary so sharply! One moment someone wants to say hi, five seconds later it’s some lady wailing about a cheating boyfriend! Who I might add, she seemed very uninterested in leaving by the way!”

Ivy gave a deep throated laugh.

“Stop laughing! I’m just saying…it seems stressful.”

“How is advising people stressful?”

“Well, they drain you with their…issues. Do students even read anymore? It’s all love and shit.”

Ivy muffled a laugh. “For someone who doesn’t like to socialise, you sure listen a lot.”

“A deaf person would have heard that lady wailing, she was very loud with her… wailings of a broken heart.”

Ivy snickered. “He got her a new phone, all is forgiven.”

“See?! I was right!”

“Anyway! Students come to me and we discuss. I could help make them love you more than the rest.”

Nora’s brows furrowed. “How come you want to help me?” She rushed on. “Not that I’m not grateful because I am! I just wondered why me?”

“I like you.”

Nora angled her head questioningly. “That is very strange.”

Ivy guffawed. “Why?”

“I’m kinda … I think standoffish.”

“Oh so you know?”

Nora chuckled. “It just happened to me, I don’t know why.”

“I like you, Nora. I really do. Also, the other ladies are just not it, you’d make a better colleague.”

“So it’s a case of picking the one eyed man out of the blinds to be king?”

“Exactly!”

Nora chuckled softly. “I like you too, Ivy.”

By 3pm Nora locked the office up and headed for home. Jade and Josie—the other office mates had been a no show today, so it had just been she, Ivy and her never ending student visitors. Ivy had drawn her into stupid conversations with them before she’d had to leave. Nora had given supposedly sage advice and tried to smile more. She shook her head, she was as messed up as everyone else if not more, and she had given advice on dressing how you wanted to be addressed.

“What the hell do I know about dressing?”

If she got this job, she was becoming a vampire and sucking the blood of all the people she’d had to be nice to. The front of the faculty was packed with students taking selfies at different spots for picscell no doubt, Nora thought. As she made her way through the madness she heard her name.

“Nora? Is that you?”

Turning to the direction the voice came from, she saw Ian—still the handsome beanpole he had ever been, walking towards her. She rolled her eyes. “Great.” She smiled politely. “What are you doing here?”

Ian shifted uncomfortably. “This is my faculty, I still have classes for today.”

“Oh…yeah. Ok cool.” She’d totally forgotten he’d told her the last time they saw that he’d just begun university, at the time she’d been in her third year. He’d repeatedly failed the entrance exam up until that year. She remembered how lazy he’d been toward school, and yet she’d love him like that. Damn Nora thought, her teenage love had sure been blind.

Ian smiled at her. “We should go out sometime.”

“No.”

“Hey common.”

She sighed. “We’ve run into him each other like thrice I think, after you dumped me. Each running in is usually followed with some can I take you out and I still miss you calls and texts Three years still hasn’t changed all that? Can we just not?”

Ian smiled. “Hey I couldn’t help it. You look so much bigger … your hips are to die for!”

“Huh?”

Ian licked his lips. “You added sexy weight, I almost didn’t recognise you. You look so damn … sexy!”

“Almost didn’t recognise me?” Nora heard herself ask with a distant sounding voice. That was what had looked different, that was what was off about her body. She was fat! How could she not have seen that? Oh God Nora thought, she despised fatness on herself. She rarely ate much, what the hell had caused it?

“Nora? Nora.”

She snapped out of her rising panic. “What?!”

Ian’s head snapped back. “I was thinking, maybe I could take you out or something.”

“Why Ian do you always ask me out when you see me? Why would I want to go anywhere with you?”

“Well we … I … you know our connection was—”

“Severed, it was severed Ian when you decided screwing Esther was more important than I was.”

“I was young and—”

“And evil.”

Ian face looked pained. “Nora, come on…I still love you.”

She snorted. “It’s been six years, your love is irrelevant. You invited me over to your place, proceeded to flirt with your supposed platonic female friend who just magically happened to come visit the same day I was. You then took a very confused me outside, dumped me and started dating Esther another of your platonic female friend. Please explain to me why in any god’s name I’d go anywhere with you?!”

“Nora, I’m sorry … I thought you didn’t care, I’m sorry … please—”

“And now you tell me in not so many words that I’m extremely fat, and then you ask me out. Your delusion level is through the roof. You can start your new number disturbance calls like you always do, I will keep blocking each one, I got time baby.”

“Nora, please ok? I thought you’d be jealous, I thought—”

“Jealous you were sleeping with someone else and then come have sex with you? Wow…who is that level of dumb?”

With that Nora stormed off, leaving Ian in her very angry dust. She heard him call her name but didn’t look back. Suddenly her body felt fat and heavy. She needed to get home as soon as possible to check on the weight stuff.

 

About LOT (Lauren O. Taskar)

LOT was born into a family of five. While growing up she was dubbed cartoon girl due to her love for animation and story books. Managing to be a loner in a big family, she’s grown up to become an adult obsessed with not only animation and comic books, but also movies, novels, and writing. She aspires to make others happy through her writing.

Unlikely But True, a story by Linsey Abrams, published by Interlitq

04/02/2022

Unlikely But True

a story by Linsey Abrams

Popeye’s life has gone terribly wrong. He used to be content. No matter about his sea legs, a gift since birth, which made all voyages possible. They reside in the memory bank of youth and sometime after, exciting reels in Technicolor.  The problem is, qualities that served him once as an adventurer, don’t now. It’s the plight of all children who grew up. What was ballast later anchors them to the ocean floor.  How did an old salt like himself end up on a couch telling his troubles to a doctor? Preceding him were the Wolfman and, less famously, the Ratman.  There is also the amazing Ant-man, from a comic book. All three are unknown to him.

The Sailor Man, Dr. Freud calls him.  He’s someone who lives in a world so separate from others that he doesn’t even recognize it.

According to Popeye, he is afflicted with the following: One, he’s exhausted from the whole business with Olive.  There’s a repetition compulsion, if ever there was one…first she loves him then she acts like she’s never met him.  Literally.  His rival Bluto capitalizes on her absent-mindedness or is it her fickle nature? And two, perhaps worse, he does not have a complete narrative of the past. He and the Doctor are searching for a story, an accrual of both remembered and formerly repressed events, even if some are untrue. This is what bothers Popeye—the process works with at least some make-believe. The Sailor, who tied knots with a precision learned by necessity, is outraged. One mis-tied slip knot can sink a ship. He wonders if the psychoanalyst is putting him on. It would be gross malpractice, only that concept isn’t a thought in a single mind yet.

She loves me, she loves me not.  Popeye plucked the petals off a flower that was growing nearby. Is this a garden? His garden? These are the kinds of question that Freud likes to ask. Trick questions, Popeye believes. Anyway, he knows now what a metaphor is, used to convey emotion. Popeye has more feelings than thoughts, something they are trying to ameliorate.

Popeye and his friends are not Jews—their religion is the sea. They cross entire oceans, enchanted by the mermaids, who are their angels. All day, on deck, the sailors call out each other’s nicknames, that anyway, sound American. Perhaps they are, though the Doctor practices in London, to where he and his family escaped, from Vienna, in 1938. They are fortunate not to have died in a concentration camp, since the Holocaust had already begun. With his huge ego, the patriarch had never considered this outcome. Luckily, they were rescued, by people who wanted his work to live on…and him. The Nazis would have destroyed his papers, leaving nothing for posterity. Pigs.

He’s a romantic, Dr. Freud has decided. Unusual in a man.  Latent homosexuality, perhaps, the endless battles with Bluto for Olive Oyl.  Something else too, not just the bringing of flowers and remembering Olive’s birthday, but he himself likes to be wooed, cuddled; and to take care of his nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Where did his nephews come from? He doesn’t remember a sibling, let alone one responsible for triplets. On the other hand, he doesn’t remember much. Dr. Freud had wondered if the experiences in far-off lands were screen memories, masking episodes of unspeakable abuse. This is doctrine, but doesn’t seem likely with Popeye.

Olive says she loves him, but actions speak louder than words. Who knows what others, even those of our heart, mean when they speak?  It’s like a crazy muttering that only the speaker understands.  Everyone’s a rival, he is sorry to say. Everyone betrays him. So Popeye  began analysis, a last resort.

Is this a cartoon?  Or a doctor’s fantasy?  It doesn’t matter.

The two men blew smoke rings at first.  They couldn’t be more dissimilar, indicated by the cigar, on the one hand, and the pipe, on the other. Yet the shapes that coalesce from the smoke, those of exoticism and antiquity, are a dual project. The Sphinx, an Olympic laurel wreath, oases indicated by a walled-off well over which hangs a pail. A tiny armada. Camels.  A rare construction unfathomable to one man or the other: a hamburger in a bun, a daughter Anna. Free association is easy for Popeye, Freud notes.  In fact, you can’t get him to shut up…all that muttering about well you can do and if Olive thinks…Bluto, here he is again. And most frequent, Shiver me timbers!  In fact, the Sailor Man is wildly associative…for example, his thoughts on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Imagine what might have become of him had he had the advantages of life. Dr. Freud is envious even so.  The mind, while vast, is not the size of a sea or the ocean.

Dr. Freud remembers when people were enigmas, though by now he has amassed and written about myriad cases, exhaustively though in tight prose.  His jaw hurts, even with the cocaine…better put down the cigar. This cancer is his greatest challenge. He is probably facing death, not a tragedy like the near annihilation of his people. But still. Sometimes he thinks of all the little children holding hands with a parent on the cruel marches. The elderly collapsing. Babies skewered by German bayonets or being tossed in air, not quite to the hands of God…though Freud was an atheist even before the Shoah. Those babies should have had the advantage of a life, remarkable or not.

In one session like any other, a question comes to the Doctor…Why is it, Popeye, that you never remember to eat your spinach until after a crisis starts…trouble that leads to aggression? You could be invincible like Superman if you ate it preemptively. This last thought snatched from ether. It’s proof of the receptive creativity that he shares with artists. To acclaim, he wrote about that too.

It is the destruction of the ego that Freud facilitates before the building back of self that allows for love and work. The Sailor Man knows he can love Olive Oyl and also his nephews, but where by itself does that get him? Apparently, love is not an act with gains but exists as a condition, a steady-state. Beyond that is work, which at this time in his life is only the tasks of domesticity. Does caretaking count?

Perhaps he is cursed, like the genie he met in Istanbul. The genie, who lived in a brass quasi-gravy boat (enough with the boats!), had work—the three wishes—but could not love. Popeye wonders what his own third wish would be, after fidelity from Olive and that the boys should grow up without incident, and healthy. The Sailorman looks stricken, notes Dr. Freud. Yet he feels no compassion for patients, because that would undercut the objectivity and also creativity called for, to carry someone successfully to self-acceptance and acceptance of life with its stubborn status quo.

This sufferer is sorry he ever wanted to change, to become fully human. Or even human.  The thought can bring a grown man to his knees. So Popeye would have to stand up and climb from the black pit of amnesia, which doesn’t seem likely. He has come to realize the utter hopelessness of his condition. Before, there was something so comforting in the way each day repeated another, albeit in a different order. But still. There’s depression, or the mania brought on by the talismanic cans of spinach. The ageless sailor suddenly recognizes what his third wish would be. Even though he has been warned off wish-fulfillment. To be happy the way I once was. Long ago. Is this malfeasance? But anyway, that ship, so to speak, has sailed.

All right then, so this is his life. So be it. There must be something of merit to having lived it. Too true.

I y’am what I y’am, and that’s all that I am, Popeye lectures his bespectacled Torquemada.

Ah, Dr. Freud says. We have unexpectedly arrived at termination.

What?!

Popeye will be his last patient, though he has no way of knowing. Goodbye, Doctor, with a legacy into the future that few can claim. Dead within months, Freud will never write about the Sailor Man, who himself lives on the island where this last adventure has landed him. Always and finally Popeye, with his frozen time and immortal future.

 

 

About Linsey Abrams

Linsey Abrams has published three novels—Our History in New York, Double Vision, and Charting by the Stars. Her short fiction, poems, and literary essays have been published in such venues as Glimmer Train, 13th Moon, Seattle Review, BOMB, and Mississippi Review’s 30, an anthology of the best work chosen by Frederic Barthelme, founding editor, over his 33-year tenure. Linsey’s stories were finalists for the Mississippi Review Fiction Prize and the Nelson Algren Award, and winners of a Pushcart Prize. She has reviewed books for the LA Times and New York Times book reviews. She has received grants from New York State Council on the Arts, NYC Council on the Arts, and The Titus Foundation.

Linsey is represented by Laurie Liss at Sterling Lord Literistic.

Linsey was founding editor of Global City Review, a journal that The Multicultural Review called “a rich treasury of contemporary social thought and artistic expressions, defending a humanistic view of the individual in a complex society.” GCR had a 20-year run. Linsey was a longtime tenured member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. Later, she taught in and directed the MFA program at The City College of New York. Linsey was writer-in-residence at New York’s Harvey Milk School, in its early years. She lives with her wife in New York City.

Big Night, a Short Memoir About Charles Bukowski, by Michael D. Meloan, published in Interlitq

Charles Bukowski

Big Night

a memoir*

Michael D. Meloan

*Author’s note: This is a short memoir about a wild New Year’s Eve party at Bukowski’s San Pedro home in 1983

 

Driving up the long incline toward Bukowski’s New Year’s Eve party, we could hear music. Cars were parked on both sides of the street, all the way down the block. We walked along the dark and narrow driveway toward the front door. Chrissie rang the bell and we waited. Then she rang it again. Finally, I knocked hard. Linda Lee Beighle appeared smoking one of Buk’s Indian Beedie cigs.

“Oh my God! You have got to be kidding!” She laughed uproariously, then called people over to see Chrissie’s leopard print Lycra spandex body suit. A number of other women started laughing too. Chrissie shot me an angry look. It was my idea. We stepped inside.

A man with a heavy German accent said, “I like it!”

Chrissie’s face was flushed. I grabbed her arm and led her past Linda into the living room.

 

There was a long sofa and wooden table in the living room where Bukowski held court. People were perched on big pillows arranged next to the table.

Chrissie and I sat down on the sofa. Buk said nothing as we arrived. He was already drunk, and in the midst of a story. There were long pauses as he sucked on a Beedie. The group hung on his every word.

“I read in the downtown public library during the day, and slept in the alleys at night. Told stories in the bars to hustle drinks. Normal people bored me–I couldn’t live that life, couldn’t be around that. But in the end, the bums bored me too. The only thing that lasts is wine.” He took a puff. “Just drink, and drink…and whatever else happens, is just what happens.”

Bukowski’s speech was slow; his eyes were like slits. He continued. “Later, I had my own room in a skid row hotel. After a long night of drinking, I started puking-up blood and foul-smelling chunks of flesh. It just came and came into the toilet. The stench was overpowering. They took me in an ambulance to the charity ward at County General. One of the doctors said he’d level with me–I had about a 50-50 chance. I stayed there for a month, and slowly got better. When it was time to go, a doctor sat down with me in a little white room. He said if I EVER drank alcohol again, I would die.” Long pause. “So I walked out and found a shitty little bar right down the street. It smelled good–cigar smoke and stale booze. I sat down and ordered a glass of beer. No hard liquor, because I was trying to go easy. I watched the bubbles rise up for about 30 seconds, then drank it down fast.” He paused and took a puff. “I didn’t die.”

“Amazing story!” blurted out a young guy.

“Wow,” gasped a middle-aged woman. Everyone murmured with approval as they took deep pulls of wine.

Bukowski stared out the window toward the harbor. Then he turned to me. “I was wondering if you’d show up, man. I thought you might be grist for a poem if you have enough wine. So drink up!”

He raised his glass to me. I clinked it and took a drink. Then I glanced over at Chrissie. She was scanning the room looking for rock stars and listening with one ear to a young hipster’s monologue in the other room. He had scorched platinum hair and was surrounded by a small group, while laying out some shit about the Marqis de Sade and the French Revolution.

A guy sitting on the other side of Bukowski said, “You’re the most important writer of the late twentieth century.”

Bukowski slowly turned and asked, “What do you do, kid?”

“I’m an actor,” the guy said. He had a finely trimmed goatee and wore a black turtleneck with black jeans.

Bukowski paused and looked into his face, then took a drink. “You’ll never make it man…your eyes are dead. There’s nothing there. Give it up now, before you waste any more time. Go into insurance or real estate.”

The group went silent. Bukowski took another drag from his cigarette as the guy nervously got up and walked away.

Suddenly I noticed that Chrissie was standing next to the hipster, looking at him adoringly. I got up and walked past that group on my way to the kitchen. He was telling Chrissie more about the antics of de Sade.

“The Marquis whipped the people into a frenzy, with political rants and kinky sex monologues.” I saw him glance at her chest. Then I heard him say, “I like your outfit. It’s chic. I think you’re making a unique fashion statement.”

I sat back down on the sofa next to Bukowski.

“I’m glad you’re here man,” he said. “I need somebody with a brain sitting next to me.”

He stared at me, waiting for a response. I took a drink. The crowd around the sofa had thinned out since the encounter with the actor. Nobody wanted to get too close. Linda came over and sat on the floor next to Buk, with her legs crossed in a semi-lotus pose. Long strawberry blond hair flowed halfway down her back. She lit up a joint.

“I’ve got my own rock ‘n’ roll groupie,” he said. “She parties all night in the brand-new convertible I bought her. And I don’t even ask who she’s fucking. Do I?”

“This is not the time,” she said, taking a drag from the joint. The muscles in her jaw tightened.

“You’ve been riding my coat tails for years. If it wasn’t for me, where the hell would you be?”

“I have no idea,” she said. The room was silent. Linda’s eyes blazed with anger.

“I think you’re being too hard on her,” I said.

“I think you’d better shut up, motherfuck. You haven’t been very entertaining tonight. In fact, you’re beginning to bore me,” he said, moving his face close to mine.

His eyes were mean and glassy, like a vicious animal. As he got up to go to the bathroom, he reeled and started to lose his balance. I reached up to steady him, but he swatted my hand away. Then he staggered across the room and disappeared into the bathroom.

A group of Linda’s friends from the health food restaurant stood near the bathroom talking about how much they liked John Tesh’s music. Suddenly the bathroom door flew open. Bukowski emerged and walked quickly toward a balding man in a cardigan sweater.

“Where’s your drink?!” Bukowski demanded.

“This is my drink,” said the man, holding up a Calistoga water.

Bukowski turned to a woman nearby, “Where’s your drink?”

“I don’t drink,” the woman cheerfully replied.

Bukowski went nose-to-nose with her and said, “Then get out! You bore me!” He turned to the man and said, “You get out, too!” Then he looked around the room and shouted, “In fact, I want everybody out. I should be upstairs typing. I might die tomorrow, and I DON’T want to spend my last night on earth with this bunch!”

He started walking around the room screaming in people’s faces, “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE!”

People quickly gathered up their purses and coats. Most looked afraid as they headed toward the front door.

Bukowski continued to scream, “GET OUT, GET OUT!” The arteries on his neck bulged and his face had turned purple. He occasionally planted his hand on a back, male or female, and pushed them out the door.

Linda watched in silence, still seething with anger. Bukowski stood guard until the last stragglers had gone. As I left, I looked over my shoulder, but there was no hint of recognition.

I walked slowly down the long driveway and scanned the crowd. Chrissie was missing. When I got to the sidewalk, three men in their early twenties were craning their necks, trying to look inside the house.

“What is happening? What is happening?” one asked, with a heavy German accent.

“Bukowski threw everybody out…because we weren’t drinking enough.”

“This is very cool,” he said. “Very Bukowski!”

“We’ve come all the way from Munich to meet him!” said another guy.

“It’s a bad night to ring the doorbell,” I said. “He’ll bite your head off.”

“We saw a guy who said he was a director!” he added. “Got his autograph as he was leaving in a limousine with a nice prostitute.” Then he smiled, “I’m sure he got a blowjob as soon as they were inside.”

My throat knotted up.

I got into my old Citroën a few minutes before the stroke of midnight. Skyrockets whizzed into the darkness. Gunshots erupted from the neighborhoods at the bottom of the hill. Rounds were going off in all directions. Suddenly I heard the buzz-and-zing of a nearby bullet.

Driving aimlessly, I screeched around corners and floored the accelerator, almost hoping the engine would blow. When I got home, the message light was on. I thought it would be Chrissie giving me some bullshit story about where she was. Then I recognized my mother’s voice. She was sobbing uncontrollably.

“It was…almost midnight. One more day…and we would have been gone on our cruise. Just one more day!” She gasped for breath. Then the message ended.

McIntyre and my mother had stepped onto the balcony of the Jonathan Beach Club for some fresh air. He lit a cigarette as they gazed out at the sweeping arc of lights spanning toward Palos Verdes Estates.

“This is the happiest night of my life,” he said, turning to look at her. “I want to marry you.”

She hesitated for a moment, then turned, and they kissed.

He looked at his watch. “It’s nearly midnight. I’ll get some Champagne.”

My mother stared at the towering Christmas tree covered in fairy lights and hundreds of ornaments. It reminded her of New York City, when she was a young woman.

She made eye contact with McIntyre as he left the bar. Smiling broadly, he walked toward her. Then his expression suddenly changed and his eyes widened. He abruptly stopped as his face became a twisted mask of pain. The glasses dropped to the floor. Clutching his chest, he staggered then fell to his knees.

“My God! Somebody help! My God!” she screamed, as she ran into the ballroom.

I called my father. He said McIntyre was dead on arrival at the emergency room at St. John’s in Santa Monica. My mother had ridden in the ambulance. Then she called my father, and he picked her up at the hospital.

“She’s here with me now.” He sounded more himself than he had in months. I could hear her crying in the background. “I have to go,” he said.

 

 

I turned on the TV. It was a replay of the ball-drop in Times Square. Counting down, 5-4-3-2-1…then explosive crowd noise.

Happy New Year.

I cracked open a beer and turned on my computer to write an email to my boss Lamont at Hughes Aircraft. The company had demanded that I break up with Chrissie because of her drug busts, or my top-secret clearance would be denied.

But in the middle of the note, I deleted it. Instead I started writing a story. By 3:45 am, I had knocked out seven pages rapid fire. I had the machinegun rhythm of Bukowski’s black Underwood typewriter in my head.

Then the telephone rang. It was Chrissie. Her voice sounded faint. She was in the lobby of the Château Marmont hotel.

“That guy was a drunk and a bore and an asshole,” she said. “He promised to put me in a movie. How stupid could I be? You’re the only one who really gets me. I think I love you. Will you let me come back?”

I sighed and paused. “Yeah…come back. I think we should hit the road–Prague, Morocco, India, who knows where. Are you ready for that?”

“Cool,” she said without hesitating. “I’m there.”

 

About Michael D. Meloan

Michael D. Meloan’s fiction has appeared in Wired, Huffington Post, Buzz, LA Weekly, Larry Flynt’s Chic, and in many anthologies. He was an interview subject in the documentaries Bukowski: Born Into This and Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There. With Joe Frank, he co-wrote a number of radio shows that aired across the National Public Radio syndicate. His Wired short story “The Cutting Edge” was optioned for film. And he co-authored the novel The Shroud with his brother Steven. For many years, he was a software engineer. In addition, he does killer karaoke.

Keeping Up, a story by Dilys Rose

14/05/2021
Edinburgh, Scotland

Fiction by Dilys Rose

 

Keeping Up

Cilla is dreaming of a pirate, of the swashbuckling, buccaneer variety—roguishly handsome, with a luxuriant beard and glinting earring but none of the stink and ingrained filth that are part and parcel of the trade. No eyepatch or knotted headscarf but he is brandishing some kind of bladed weapon, a cutlass, surely—isn’t that what old-school pirates ran with? He is a distance away and yet somehow close enough to smell pipe tobacco and seadog rum on his breath. She hears herself murmuring ‘sea-green eyes’ when Frankie’s querulous voice barges into her dream and dispatches the brigand.

Cilla. Cilla! We’re anchoring in ten. If you don’t get a move on, we’ll have to wait for ever!

If they’re anchoring in ten, they’re already too late. Everyone wants a place on the first batch of tenders, and queues for the escalators will already be dozens deep. Cilla rolls over on her bunk and peers through the porthole of their shared cabin. In the distance, squat, blocky buildings line the quay against a backdrop of parched scrub. At least they won’t be spending their shore day there.

She’d only meant to close her eyes while Frankie wrapped up her morning flirt with the waiters, not to actually nod off. Cilla blames the food. There is always so much on offer, and quality food at that. The kitchens work round the clock to turn out ever-more tempting dishes and the aroma of freshly baked bread infiltrates the ventilation system at all hours. Though Cilla always sticks to the Light Continental Option, even on a shore day when everyone stocks up on breakfast, the waistband of her favourite holiday trousers is already beginning to pinch. Frankie, damn her, can tuck into a Full English every day without any change to her coat-hanger frame.

After being marshalled by bumptious, semaphoring stewards onto a packed escalator descending to the lower decks, the two tramp the gangway to their allotted tender where, by means of some sly elbowing, they secure a spot from which to view their approach to The Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean. More queuing and more gangways before Cilla and Frankie, lurching after several days at sea, join the hordes pouring through the archways of the Old Port and onto the paved, mediaeval streets.

The journey from the deck of their cruise ship to Dubrovnik—a distance of no more than a few kilometres—has taken the best part of the morning. Preparations for lunch are underway and the city reeks of grilling meat and fish. Their first stop: queuing at the ATM for local currency; their second: queuing at the adequate but overpriced public toilets; their third: securing a bench in the shade so Frankie can apply sunblock.

You could always cover your arms, says Cilla.

I could, says Frankie, but I don’t want to.

As ever, Cilla has dressed for comfort and concealment. As ever, Frankie has opted for style: a sleeveless white dress with a gold border at the neck and hem, strappy gold sandals and matching toenail polish. Her colour coordination is marred by blazing epaulettes of sunburn, from lounging too long on the lido the previous afternoon, ogling the ship’s all-male dance troupe as they leapt and flexed, rehearsing for the final night’s extravaganza.

There’d better not be loads of stairs, says Frankie, squinting through a gold-trimmed visor at a slice of ancient wall, glimpsed between rooftops.

Frankie finds stairs difficult. If they’d booked a city tour, a workaround for those with mobility issues would have been on offer but Frankie prefers to soldier on and kid everybody— including herself— that she’s still in her prime.

We don’t have to do it, says Cilla.

What’s the point in coming at all if you don’t do the main sights? Who goes to Paris and doesn’t do the Eiffel Tower?

I’ve never done the Eiffel Tower.

But that’s just you, Cilla, trying to be different. Cilla went to Paris and didn’t do the Eiffel Tower. Cilla went to New York and didn’t visit the Statue of Liberty. Cilla went to Agra and didn’t see the Taj Mahal

I did see the Taj Mahal. I sent you a postcard.

Did you? Nobody bothers with postcards any more. Must have been a while ago.

It was. Cameron and I were on our honeymoon.

Oh, Cameron, says Frankie. Ancient history, then.

Not to me it isn’t!

Cilla takes slow, deep breaths while Frankie bats her eyes at a bronzed hunk, smoking in a coffee shop doorway, and resolutely ignoring her. She has never married and considers Cilla’s twenty-five-year marriage and ensuing decade of chaste widowhood a huge yawn. Though Frankie’s own life—if her version of events is to be believed—has been awash with steamy and/or stormy affairs, she shows little sign of abandoning hope that Prince Charming may still rock up and sail her off into an incomparable sunset.

The two women have been friends for fifty years. Not always the very best of friends but, despite jags of rage and corrosive irritations borne of long familiarity, their lives now peg along on similarly solitary lines. Since Cilla became a widow, they’ve taken their annual holiday together. They’ve done self-catering cabins, budget packages, city breaks and bus tours but as this is something of a watershed year, they’ve splashed out on a cruise. It’s a pity, they agree, that their budget hadn’t stretched to single cabins.

I so want to do the wall, says Frankie. If only my stupid feet are up to it.

Perhaps we need a Plan B, says Cilla, leafing through her guide book. The cathedral has paintings by Dalmatian and Italian artists, including one by Raphael.

If they only mention one Raphael, nothing else will be worth bothering with.

The reliquary contains the head and a leg of a thirteenth-century saint.

Who wants to see creepy old body parts?

The maritime museum hosts a fine collection of seahorses.

Fun for five minutes, says Frankie. Which way to the wall?

Cilla indicates the slow procession of crumpled shorts, bulging bum bags and floppy hats: no longer an invading horde but a vast herd of docile cattle, plodding across flagstones buffed to a sheen by centuries of feet and hooves. The streets are so congested it’s hard to appreciate the mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture the city is renowned for. In the main square, in front of an ornate town hall, a band of men in white shirts, black trousers and crimson cummerbunds sing in doleful unison to a loose horseshoe of audience.

Klapa, says Cilla. They sing about tragedies at sea, lost love and such.

Oh, let’s not stop for the doom and gloom, says Frankie. They’ll be passing round the hat in a minute and we don’t have any coins.

As soon as they pass through the ticket booth and begin to climb the first flight of steep, uneven stairs, the heat hits them. Frankie, who insisted on leading the way so she didn’t have to play catchup, gasps at every step. Cilla’s heart begins to thump assertively.  She, too, must pace herself. She presses against the sun-baked stone to let a group of nimble Japanese matrons squeeze past. Oblivious to the tailback, Frankie continues upwards. Perhaps she doesn’t hear their gentle twittering. Frankie is quite deaf but refuses to admit it.

When they reach the ramparts, the Japanese group patter past Frankie. Cilla catches her breath, takes in the shimmering expanse of sea.  Frankie, groaning, massages her ankles.

Couldn’t they have got us here before it was so hot?

What a view! says Cilla.

The colour of the sea’s a bit wishy-washy, says Frankie, standing on tiptoe so she can see over the perimeter wall. Reminds me of that mouthwash of yours. By the way, I used some this morning but I don’t care for the taste.

Bring your own, then.

Surely, Cilla, you don’t begrudge me a capful of mouthwash?

That’s not the point.

The point is that Frankie crams every beauty product imaginable into her toilet bag but forgets some essential item, like soap or toothpaste. Always.

The sky is unbroken blue. It is almost noon and fiercely hot, with only the thinnest slivers of shade. Encrusted with tourists, diamond-shaped ramparts encompass domes, steeples and pitched roofs and the seaward sections extend over sheer cliffs. The walls were built in the thirteenth century to protect the city from invasion, Cilla reads. In the fifteenth century, numerous towers were built upon them; some are still standing. There’s one! she says, gesturing to where the Japanese women are arranging themselves for group photos, their laughter dipping and darting like bright birds.

Spare me the history lesson, says Frankie. My God, look at all those stairs!

We don’t have to go all the way round.

But if we don’t go all the way round, we haven’t really done it, have we?

Does it matter? says Cilla.

It matters to me, says Frankie.

The taverna where Frankie insists they have lunch—persuaded by the moustachioed hunk touting for trade at the entrance—is packed but does have terrace seating beneath a vine-laden trellis.

I never want to see that wall again, says Frankie.

But we did it! says Cilla. And you have to admit the views were sensational.

My feet are killing me.

Shall we treat ourselves to wine?

If you say so, says Frankie, though God knows what the local stuff is like.

They have Italian wines as well.

No, no, says Frankie. When in Dubrovnik—

When the waiter—yet another Adonis—arrives, Frankie quizzes him about the wine list, only to settle, eventually, on a carafe of house white. Having read that sharing plates are the norm, Cilla enquires about portion size but, despite his eloquence on the wine list, the waiter is vague.  Not that it matters. Frankie has set her heart on the local speciality—squid ink risotto—and so Cilla, who’s allergic to seafood, has no alternative but to order something else.

This is just another tourist trap, says Frankie. Do you see any locals eating here? It can’t possibly be authentic.

You chose it.

We were hungry, Cilla. We had to eat somewhere. I’d just have liked to eat somewhere authentic.

Do you think they’d have such hot waiters in an authentic place? Or linen tablecloths, traditional music? If you want the real deal, the guide book says, expect a surly proprietor, Formica tables and blaring MTV.

You’re such a smart-arse, says Frankie. And I bet that guide book is way out of date.

Like us, says Cilla.

Speak for yourself, says Frankie. I keep up, Cilla. I keep up.

The wine arrives promptly, the food tardily. Thirsty from so much walking in the heat, both women drink deep.

I don’t know why you have to bang on about portion size, says Frankie. Anyone can see you don’t exactly starve yourself.

You eat as much as I do, says Cilla. A lot more, in fact.

Maybe, Frankie preens, but I can get away with it.

Do you have to be such a bitch?

I just tell it like it is, Cilla.

Well, don’t bother. I know how it is.

The wine has gone to their heads. They are talking too loudly. Not that it matters; everybody is jawing away and drowning out the weeping strings. The food eventually arrives and the portions are enormous. Frankie wrinkles her nose at the purplish-brown mound on her plate, samples a forkful suspiciously and, loudly enough for half the terrace to hear, pronounces it revolting. She summons the waiter—there really is no need for the finger-snapping—and tells him to take it away.

You want something else?

No, dear, she says, stroking the waiter’s smooth, golden forearm with a mottled claw. My friend doesn’t like big portions. We can share her dish—can’t we, Cilla?

With a shrug, the waiter departs, skinny hips snaking between closely packed tables, Frankie’s rejected plate of squid ink risotto held aloft.

By the time they have polished off Cilla’s more-than-ample chicken salad, drained the carafe of wine and paid the bill, the terrace is all but deserted.

We’re running a bit late, says Cilla.

Just a quick look?

We’ll have to be quick.

Tipsily, they veer off the main drag and plunge into a web of backstreets, only to find the gift shop shutters drawn, their doors and grilles bolted. The only sign of life is a slit-eyed cat, basking on a dusty windowsill.

I thought you said they don’t do siesta here, says Frankie.

They don’t. Maybe it’s some kind of local holiday.

So, we’re not going to get any souvenirs? I promised my yoga teacher I’d bring her some lavender oil.

She’ll cope, says Cilla, opening up her map.  I don’t think we’re going the right way. We have to work out where we are, and which direction we’re facing, before we go any further.

But we can’t be late back! says Frankie, a rattle of panic in her voice. The tenders won’t wait. No exceptions, they said. No exceptions!

I’m trying, says Cilla, to prevent us being late. We could have asked a shopkeeper for directions but as you can see there aren’t any shopkeepers to ask.

That’s a fat lot of use, then! says Frankie. But I wouldn’t trust a local, to be honest. Remember that bus driver on Crete?

It was Corfu.

Same difference. That guy screwed us around on purpose, says Frankie. Bastard. I bet he bragged about it to his pals in the Ouzo bars.

I’m sure he had better stories to tell, says Cilla.

At the end of their week in Corfu, which until then had been remarkably hitch-free, they’d decided to save on the shuttle and take a municipal bus to the airport. The guide book had made it seem straightforward enough but despite asking the driver to let them know when to get off, the bus clattered past the airport and was miles down the road before they realised. They had no choice but to lug their suitcases off the bus, drag them across the road and wait, amid maize fields teeming with locusts, for a bus from the opposite direction to return them to the airport.  It was quite a wait. They only just made their flight.

Come on, Cilla. We don’t have time to stand around while you ponder that map.

We don’t have time to take a wrong turning.

Oh, for God’s sake! I told you we should get somebody to put Google Maps on our phones.

But we don’t know how to use the App, says Cilla. And you said it was more trouble than it was worth. You said you’d rather rely on common sense—

I don’t remember saying anything of the kind, says Frankie, but we really must get up to speed on technology if we’re to survive in the modern world. I mean, you can’t even operate a self-service checkout, can you, Cilla? You need somebody to help you buy a loaf of bread! You should have asked that boy of yours to set us up with Google Maps. You’re always banging on about what a whiz he is with techy stuff. What’s the point in having children if they can’t help out when you need them to?

They are standing at a fork in the road. Cilla folds her arms. Frankie digs her knuckles into bony hips. Their mismatched shadows—one short and skinny, the other tall and stout—are cast across the intersection, like Laurel and Hardy squaring up for a scrap.

If we’re late, they’ll go without us! Frankie bleats. They’ll hand over our passports to the ship’s agent and we’ll be left high and dry!

Could be worse, says Cilla, at least we have our credit cards.  But the thought of missing the boat, of having to negotiate repatriation with Frankie and she’s breaking out in sweat. Her chest tightens.  A glittering confetti fills her field of vision. Is it the wine? Is she having a panic attack, a stroke? She takes slow, deep breaths, blocks out Frankie’s bleating and concentrates on a plain, dark door until the confetti begins to evaporate and her pulse rate subsides.

Cilla has never been great at map-reading and the print is so tiny it’s barely legible, even with her new glasses. The sun bites into the back of her neck as she compares the branching backstreets with the street plan.

Maybe Frankie is right: if they’d had Google Maps, a mechanical voice would be issuing instructions on which way to turn and how long it would take to reach their destination. Hot, tired, footsore and not a little anxious, they might have found the default voice annoying but they could have relinquished responsibility and tottered on, trustingly, without making decisions, or bickering, or having to think.

Okay! she says, I’ve got it. It’s this way.

Are you sure? How can you be sure?

If we leg it, we should get there in time. Just.

Can’t we just take a taxi?

We’re in a pedestrian precinct, Frankie. Do you see any taxis? The whole city centre’s a pedestrian precinct.

But I’m so tired! My head hurts. And my feet! My poor, stupid feet—

Just one push, Frankie, says Cilla. It can’t be far.

Cilla hopes that she will never again find herself at this crossroads: its crooked sheaf of street signs, its closed doors and shuttered windows, its pitted mediaeval walls and time-smoothed paving stones. Determination battling with desperation, she sets off; every so often she glances over her shoulder to check that Frankie, her friend of fifty years, is keeping up.

 

About Dilys Rose

Dilys Rose lives in Edinburgh, and is a novelist, short story writer and poet. She has published eight books of fiction and four of poetry, most recently the novel Unspeakable (Freight, 2017), set in seventeenth-century Edinburgh. Her poetry pamphlet, Stone the Crows (Mariscat Press), was published in 2020. A fifth collection of stories is due out in 2022. She divides her time between Edinburgh and a small studio on the East Lothian coast, where, throughout the pandemic, she has been writing and making collages.