REPORT A PROBLEM
There on the wall, tacked with clear pins and in angular ascension, a Christmas tree made of a cheap string of lights emerges green as any long-leaf pine. Beneath it, she arranges presents; they are boxed and wrapped in green and gold paper.
"It's not quite the same is it?" he asks behind her. His name is Nathaniel.
"It's perfect," she—her name is Jennifer—says. "No one's ever done—"
Her last words are smothered in emotion. She can't tell him how glad she is to have her tree. She wants to say something, but instead, she smiles and cries.
It was incomprehensible that this would be their last night in bed together. They slept together through the divorce proceedings. It was their guarantee things remained civil between them. They could not hate one another as long as they returned to the same bed each night. But now even this was coming to an end. Tomorrow they would be single again, thrust into that frightening sea like fish too small for keeping. Remarkable how, now they were divorced, they loved each other unconditionally. Of course, it wouldn't last; neither would this night. So they stayed awake and drank it in.
"No, no. The plug goes that way," the elderly woman corrected her mate.
"Like this?" he asked.
"No. The other way."
"Oh, yes. I see it now," he said. He laid the net of lights across the hedge. He had no idea what his wife was up to, but following her directions would never lead him astray. Or, at least, mostly never. "That's it?"
"Now plug it in. You'd lose your head if it wasn't for me."
"That's why our marriage is so handy," he said and smiled with the teeth he had left.
My father died before I was born. On the heels of my mother's swollen news, he leapt from the second floor of his building and survived the fall until a truck hit him. That was the sort of man he was; his man-traits were inheritable. Most days I know when I decide to leap, I will do so from a higher vantage. Yet what if, like my father, I have keys only to a second floor window, and no one living higher will let me in? Is that why he leapt from the second floor: because he had no friends?
In the cold, snowy morning, the scissor lift sat frozen, unused, its weight-bearing wheels crushing crystal grasses beneath. It had been there for two weeks, with no explanation except what could be gleaned from our own imaginations: changing blown security lights, maybe winterizing the apartments' wall-mounted air conditioners. It looked like a spring ready to bound up to heaven if the Canadian cross-winds didn't blow it off course. Perhaps this was what angels used in their intermediary functions here on this earth. I wanted suddenly to climb on top of the coiled, waiting monster and take my chance with God.
"You have to admit..." he said and shivered.
"Yes. I've said that. I already said," said his friend. He was perturbed by the other man's insistence. Much could be inferred from tone.
"It moved, didn't it? In the middle of the night?"
"Not without. Ghosts."
"Don't be silly," the perturbed man said. He was now visibly perturbed.
"It's enough to scare a man. Who would move something in the night with no purpose but to scare a man?"
"Maybe I would."
"Then ghosts. The only explanation."
"Then ghosts," he cried.
Jason Meadows sat on a bench and waited for his train. It was due any second, but sometimes there was no telling with trains. He looked around the platform. A few stragglers were hanging about, but there was no one Jason wanted to speak with. Every evening, it was the same. He left his office for a silent and lonely ride home. He turned to a man dressed in a coat too large, too worn to be doing much good.
"I think I'm gonna walk," Jason said to the man, and those were the first words he'd said all night.
Another year, another parade, he thought. And this one wouldn't be any different. Except that it was honoring someone he knew. Honoring his brother, in fact, for getting his leg blown off and not having the common decency to follow it into the body bag. He was glad his brother was a hero; but a parade? He could get his leg blown off. It wasn't that hard actually. In Iraq? The people would be practically begging him to let them do it. He'd rather watch the Christmas parade. The one where Santa ends the show instead of his one-legged brother.
She liked the musty smell of books, the brittle scent of mold's courageous tries. In the library, she inhaled so deeply she often became lightheaded, given to fainting spells, and thought generally useless by the other library staff. But she wasn't useless, not entirely. She knew her books the way a lover knows a fleeting glance. She was helpful when conscious and loved the sound of children's fingers crossing pages. And when a patron appeared at her desk, when a fellow book-lover appeared lost to all sense, she simply looked toward the wayward wonderer and asked, "May I help you?"
The snow fell in flurries of white like washed cotton sheets drying on the line. There was no end to it, and no beginning either, which made the event more meaningful, somehow. I turned to Janice who was drinking coffee with two sugar cubes.
"When will it stop?" I asked her.
She smiled and put down her mug. "Just let it snow, dear. There is nothing you can do to stop it."
I could tell there was something else behind her lips, waiting to be said. That is how I feel about life, she thought but thought better of saying.
The shadow's bloated body loomed as though a zeppelin were about to land. She could no longer define her own cast features as her fine wisps of hair and slender neck were enveloped in the darkening space. If the stranger had a gun or knife, she wished he'd do it already, kill her if it wanted. That was the shame of things. Had she been so indiscriminately horrible that she wouldn't know if her killer was man or woman? Yes, she had been.
"What is it?" she cried. "What do you want?"
"Only that which you have taken from me."
In the early bite of fall, there was never doubt who he would root for on Sundays. There was something galvanizing in following a losing team; a team you knew would fail with puritanical predestination. He watched the morning sports reporters with the disinterest of a horse swatting flies with his tail. There was never question about how skilled his team was or would be. The horned logo in its sea of purple signified pride even when there was no reasonable source for it. It meant being steadfast, which, in the world of sports, meant far more than being good.
His mother introduced him to the ghost. She had not meant to; she had meant to keep the ghost to herself. But on her deathbed, the pain overcame, overthrew her desire to leave a better life for her son.
"This is Lenore," she whispered. "And she is yours forevermore."
His mother died with those words, giving up her ghost with the other one besides. Now she, the ghost, was his responsibility, his charge. What the hell was he supposed to do with a ghost?"
"I'm hungry," she said, this Lenore.
"Then what is it you eat?" he asked with trepidation.
Days like today make me appreciate the summertime:
those warm, sunny days
that seem brimming with the heat of stars. I
saw the sun today. It looked like the moon;
it looked desolate
like a second-hand celestial body.
Whatever heat it offered sent itself
somewhere south of here, to a place
it might be better received
and thought more a healer.
I don't blame it though.
I would too, if I could. And soon,
that bond will be lifted. I will travel the earth
for the warmest Amazonian forest,
the barest heat of a Saharan afternoon.
The marching snare is heavy on my chest and tugs at my shoulders. The heat—well the heat is oppressive even on cloudy days, and today is not cloudy. Mid-afternoon, we are called to attention, and the staccato tattoo ushers a shockwave I pretend is visible, spreading a forceful pulse that triggers car alarms.
I won’t say I share pride in it; it is only a thing. A thing I do. On the field, between halves, the audience otherwise bored looks down at us. The music begins, and they watch half rapt. Only parents and family come for the band.
There is an instant between the oppressive force squeezing tension and the welcoming of a gummy substance to the world. Packaged in air-tight plastic with a serrated edge, its mission is to land, puddle, and coat french fries and under-warmed hot dog buns made too bland without it. We have locomotion; we have purpose. But we don't have the purposeful locomotion that sees its destination: the blue and creme plastic tray divided neatly for the child's noontime lunch. The child and gummy substance misjudge the manufactured instant. And in the rush of school lunch, there is ketchup on his shirt.
Once he said goodbye, everything else was easy. It was simple to pack a coffee pot, or a razor with blades that kissed his whiskers more than shaved them. There was nothing to loading his small hatchback full with clothes, comforts, and memories.
After he slammed and locked the oversized trunk hatch, he stopped to whisper to the snow. In a kneeling posture, his breath voiced a clovered puff that mixed with the powder topping the drifts. In this way, he felt, the snow could hear.
"Will you miss me, snow?" he asked.
"Only until I melt," the snow replied.
Kicking, screaming, thrashing—all for the privilege of a Christmas tree. The family tradition comes the day after Thanksgiving, all of us overfull on turkey and relative togetherness.
The tree farm exists fifteen miles from home, and while we drive there, it is also family tradition to disagree about who picked the tree last year. You see, we alternate, I being one of two siblings; my sister the other.
"You always pick it."
"You always say that."
"Mom!" It is unimportant whose voice belongs to whom.
In the end, my sister picks because she always picks, though she never remembers.
The shadow cast by his loss was inevitable. He was a leader in the firm, after all. Yet, Jenny still wondered why she missed him as much as she did.
His death incurred at a missed stoplight, his last moments accompanied by the squealing of brakes had taken everyone by surprise. But especially Jenny. She felt his lack of presence like a hole dug out by worms. Had he meant more? Was his smile for her more genuine than it had been for the rest of her colleagues? Was she now, for better or worse, the widow who never was?
"No, thank you," Baron said.
But I'll take you, if you'll come
, he thought. The barista was short with perky breasts that reminded him of car radio dials.
"$5.95," she told him, flashing a standard grin that came with every cup. He handed her his money with a slow hand, let his fingers graze the tips of hers.
"Does it bother you how this place makes as much on a coffee as you make all hour?" he said with a care he hoped might matter.
"Yeah, sure. If it bothers you, there's a tip jar on the counter."
At dusk, even the air had color and character. Cheryl's eyes filled with the purple lust of the end of day as she watched the sun disappear under the horizon like a scolded child. Her time was up, and now she would be followed. There was nothing to do but wait for her shadow to show itself.
Cheryl wrapped her spindly fingers around the thick handle of her kitchen's butcher knife. It was a weak weapon, distinctly female, but it would be better than nothing. She heard the sound of a board underfoot, and she knew her shadow had come.
In my memory, he was a brave old man. I pictured him flying airplanes with twin rotors and dropping bombs on foreign people in faraway lands. Somehow this seemed romantic to me.
I found out later he was only an infantryman. He carried his rifle on missions of no importance to anyone not distinctly familiar with the tedium of that war. I suppose this still made him brave. It was not his fault no one cared about his missions, the times he laid his life on the line.
Now I imagine him wishing he were dropping bombs in faraway lands.
There were no rails at the Badlands. If he wanted, he could leap from the soggy, colored clay and spend his last moments wondering at the beauty in nature. This was what made it beautiful: no sign of man.
He wanted, most of all, to be free from the grid. He wanted to be unshackled from the chains of marketing research and 401ks. He hoped he could achieve his goal without resorting to the dramatics of throwing himself off a water-worn cliff. But if that was to be the only way, well then, he'd better buy a cape and fly.
The small, tin box was the secret vault in which the boy kept his treasures. It was, to say the least, inauspicious, but it was what he had. There were gum wrappers, baseball cards of players destined never to make the All-Star game, and—his prized possession—a postcard from his uncle in Atlanta.
"We wish you were here," the postcard read. The boy wished the same and loved his uncle best of kin. This was before the young boy realized that was all his uncle ever would write, and that, inevitably, his uncle's wishes were intangible as boyhood dreams.
Most people believed Santa Claus was obese, that his penchant for cookies left him tipping the scales. But his coat, and not his belly, was what was wont to protrude, and without the red wrapper, he was as thin as the icecicles that hung from his cobbled roof.
One day Santa lost his coat, and he didn't know where to find it. In his coat was the true meaning of Christmas, and without it, the whole holiday would come to an end. He searched frantically but could not find it anywhere. He worried his loss was the end of Noel.
The can of gasoline cost seven dollars including the one gallon of gas he put in it. The gas was premium, cost twenty cents more.
No one came to his house on Christmas Day. Despite the wreath hung outside his trailer's door and the Santa Claus smiling on his doormat, no one came to wish him merry. There was not one present.
He knew his faraway family would be surprised by the news, wouldn't think he'd done the right thing. But as he poured the can of gasoline on the floor of his lonely trailer, what else could he do?
The group of children coalesced on the dock, their feet in sandals tapping the aged wood. They watched the pelicans descend with precise military swiftness.
"They look prehistoric, don't they?" one of the children asked. Prehistoric was a word he learned a week before. Two days ago, he claimed the cats, too, were prehistoric.
"I wonder if they know that," another child said.
"Of course they don't," the first child returned.
"Then what's the good of it then?"
"I bet you don't realize you're stupid, but you are," the boy said. He smiled and threw a rock at the bird.
The flash from the camera blinded the twin girls. They fled the white wash of the camera in unison, barely holding still long enough for the digital sensor to fire.
"Those girls," their mother began, "they grow up so fast."
She said this with a sigh and a wish and also shook her head. The wish was for their happiness in hand. The sigh was of the usual kind.
"Where are you going girls?" the mother called after them. But they heard nothing or acted like they heard nothing. They continued to run out the door and into the yard.
It had been suggested that the a story at its pinnacle must deal with the death of a beautiful woman. Ernest, on the other hand, thought his own death much more poignant than any little tart's end. He held his cell phone to his ear, heard the dull thrumming of the newspaper's telephone. The phone rang seven times.
"What is it you want, then?" asked the newspaperman.
"I'm about to die. And it's news."
"Is that so?" the newspaperman asked again. Ernest thought he could hear a smile cross the disembodied voice. "That's so; and I'm worth any beautiful woman."
The Bonsai grew with the calculated force of a tree sloth, hurried only compared against millennia. Peter's interest in the plant waned with much greater speed. He placed a camera to watch in time lapse, but the hard drive filled and filled again, such in-depth lapse of attention chastising Peter's impatience.
On a Thursday, the weekly yardman ran over the Asian twig, removing its top and mulching the tender wood and leaves. Peter calculated three years would be required to regain the Bonsai's splendor, the same splendor he deplored two hours earlier. He promptly pulled it up by its roots.
The candles lit in the cathedral dripped their wax like leaden tears. There were so many this time of year. Janice felt spirits in the traipsing candle flames. She could never feel comfortable beneath the large spires, and the utter lack of other worshipers made her feel conspicuously placed at the center of the Lord's attention. Janice believed the Lord only watched members of the church. These buildings were sacred vessels of his attention. Uncertain, she raised her eyes to the Lord. His weight was palpable; she struggled to breathe. She left her question unasked, but her life was answered.
The Tip Jar