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My apologies. Been working hard at my day job, plus caught a cold. More stories are coming. Just need a little rest.

Thanks for reading!

Pulled from my files. Has my writing changed in 14 years? Comment if you can tell the difference.

It had been a long night, lots of work done, boxes packed and moved and labeled. Chester pulled his jacket a little closer, and pulled the collar up against his neck; although it was spring, the wind tonight lacked warmth. It was late, and Chester had had to walk home since his car was stolen two weeks ago. He walked the length of the long park that lay between the warehouse where he worked and his home sweet home, his humble abode, the four walls between which he called his “space”.

The grass, freshly mowed, looked greyish under the starlight, except where it was yellowed from the sodium-colored lamps along the pathway. Chester passed the playground, not looking up at the huddled shapes of teenagers brooding over some imagined slight. He walked swiftly past the smell of the public restrooms.

But he stopped by the pond. It was still and silent, deep and blue-black, unnaturally still considering the wind that sapped the heat from Chester tonight. The groves of trees stood watch over the water’s dark surface, swaying together, now apart, seeming like the kids Chester had seen on the field moments before. Chester shivvered, tired from his work and the late hour, and imagined that the lake went down forever, an endless shaft of water sunk through the Earth.

Chester had never learned to swim. He had a fascination with it, wondering what it would be like to frolic and glide through it, but his fear had kept him from it. It called to him, but he was afraid to answer it.

When he reached home, and his bed, he dreamt of fighting a huge winged snake.

*****

After another two weeks of time-and-a-half, Chester’s boss allowed as how the workload had eased off enough for Chester to take some time off. Chester hadn’t taken a vacation in nearly two years, and wasn’t sure what to do. But he remembered that night two weeks before, standing before the pond, shaking with cold and also with fear, and he decided that he would try to improve himself by learning to swim. The water’s call to him was stronger than his fear of it. He hoped.

Down at the local YMCA, there was a sign-up sheet for swimming lessons. Chester approached the board, and realized that he had not brought a pen. He turned around, looking for an office or someone official looking to request one.

“Excuse me… you look lost. Can I help you?”

Chester turned and faced a slender beauty. Her hair was soft, wavy, and so dark it was almost blue. Her eyes were a startling shade of green, and they were set in a face that was almost elfin. She had a smile, and she held a clipboard. A pen was tucked behind her left ear.

“Oh, right, I was just going to… uh….” Chester waved vaguely at the sign-up board. “I want to swim. Or, to be able to swim. Swimming lessons.”

“Excellent! I can handle that for you. I’m the instructor! Well, one of them, anyway.” She pulled the pen from behind her ear and paused with it in the air over her clipboard. “Name?”

“My name is Chester. Chester Hogan. I do hope, that is, I’m looking for a beginner’s class.”

“Fair enough… I can sign you up for the class that begins on Tuesday evening, at 7 pm, or the Wednesday afternoon class at 1:30. Which would you prefer?”

“Tomorrow evening should be fine. Where do I pay?”

“That’s my class!” She scribbed on the sheet. “Oh, you can pay in the office.” She tore a sheet off her clipboard. “Just take this over there.” She pointed over to a door marked ‘OFFICE’. She smiled again, hugged the clipboard to her chest, and bounced on her feet. “See you there!”

Chester had to borrow a pen to sign the check.

That afternoon, he made a chicken salad sandwich and ate it in the park, looking out at the pond. A flock of ducks were swimming, diving, and taking off from its waters, and he envied the ease with which they played in it. Of course, on dry land, a duck seemed out of place, like a man wearing shoes that were too tight. Chester felt that a duck was his complete opposite. The thought saddened him.

Still working on Smoke, Part 2. Not ready yet. So a new, short one tonight.

He woke up, on top of the covers in his bed, his chest being pounded from the inside by his heart. It took him several moments to realize that; he felt a discontinuity. On the one hand, he was obviously motionless and still, having just seconds ago been asleep. On the other hand, his back and legs ached, and his heart rate was dangerously near his aerobic maximum, his lungs burning and he, gasping for air, as if he’d just run a race. He couldn’t put the two facts together. One or the other was incorrect, a mistake. And yet there they were.

He felt the constant artificial wind from the fan, placed at just the correct angle to blow across his body but not directly in his face. His eyes took in the light, yellowed by the curtain but still nearly full daylight. He rolled over, away from the fan, and squinted at the digitally-reproduced time on the bedside table: 8:49 PM. While he watched the numbers morphed into 8:50 PM, then 8:51 PM. He was fascinated by the rate of change. It seemed tied to his heart rate and breathing somehow.

Maybe the fan tricked me into thinking I’m moving really fast, he thought. Yeah, that’s probably it. My subconscious mind, active while my conscious mind slept, took in the daylight through my eyelids, and combined with the air rushing past, decided that I was falling.

He was always doing this, rationalizing away what was normally inexplicable to him. He couldn’t help it. No one could deal with facts that completely contradict the ebb and flow of life and remain sane. Of course, making up stories about why a live salmon was flopping on a sidewalk, miles from a river, or telling oneself that a fan could produce such a huge oxygen deficit that would rival what was produced during an hour-long workout… that stretches the definition of sane, doesn’t it?

More than anything he was bored. Bored of his life, bored of the people in it, bored of the day to day grind of work and rest and eating and shitting and all of it. He welcomed fear and panic; at least that was something out of the ordinary.

Which side of the bed do I get out of? he asked himself. He always tried to enter and leave the bed by a different route every day. He had pushed his bed into the exact middle of the bedroom in order to have all four sides available for his entrance and exit. In the few moments it took him to decide, the clock cycled through another eleven minutes. He scrambled out the foot of the bed. He hadn’t gone out that way in a long time.

The blank walls of his room screamed at him. A small pile of clothing, clean, made an island in the boring brown carpet between his bed and the closet. A small pile of clothing, dirty, made a peninsula against the corner of his bed, extending out into the boring bedroom towards the door. He stepped over these, pulled a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from the top shelf of the closet and put them on.

Gordon was bored. Dangerously bored. His breathing slowly decelerated towards average, his heart beats spaced themselves out, incrementally, until he was no longer aware of them. He’d returned to balance.

He hated this feeling. He was especially annoyed this time, since he had a half-baked idea for why he woke up feeling like that, one he found difficult to swallow. He was mad at himself for letting himself down like that.

Why did I wake up? What was I doing going to sleep that early, anyway? What am I going to do now that I’m awake?

He found his phone and slipped it into his pocket. He searched the mountain of debris on the coffee table in the living room (LIVING room? Ha. He hardly lived in there at all) and mined out his key, which joined his phone in a pocket. He slipped into a pair of sandals.

Outside. Had to get outside.

In the brief time he’d been awake, the summer sun had set and darkness had oozed over the world. In spite of himself he shivered when he stumbled out into the cold night air. It felt wintry, chilly, on the exposed skin of his arms and legs, his face, after the subtle heat of his bedroom.

This story idea started small but as I wrote it got bigger. I’ve actually been working on it all week. It will be at least two parts, maybe three. So I’m stretching it out, rather than hurrying to finish it. Gotta listen to my muse.

His voice had never sounded so cold before. That was my first clue. Not that we had a close relationship. He ordered the drinks, I served them. But he’d been coming in on a regular basis for a couple of weeks now, every couple of nights.

Alone, which wasn’t unusual for a customer in a titty bar. Particularly a male one.

“May I get a Seven and Seven?” he asked. He did not lean on the bar, his hands were at his side, and he did not lean down to look under the hanging glasses and mugs that obscured vision of me behind the bar, in spite of his height.

“Sure,” I said, and I started putting his drink together. While I poured, I nodded towards him. “Welcome back.”

“Oh. Thank you.” His hand went up abruptly, then stopped, then went towards his back pocket to pull out his wallet, which looked shiny and brand new. For that matter, he was dressed in what appeared to be a completely new outfit, head to toe: a simple gray trilby with a red silk hat band, dark colored button shirt still starched and creased from the package, a dark gray wool vest, loose fit black jeans held with an uncreased leather belt, and long-pointed toe shoes.

“You’ve made a good impression, man.” I said. With a flourish I spun a cocktail napkin onto the bar, then set the drink on top and slid it across to him. A little hippy-hippy shake is good for tips. “I’m Leo.” I held out my hand. He ignored it, dropping three twenties on the bar and sliding his drink closer.

“Some ones, please.”

“Right.” OK, then. I made change for him, accepted his tip (he gave me $1.50 on a $6.50 drink) and promptly forgot about him.

Business was steady but not spectacular, but enough to keep me moving for a while. It was still early, just around 9 PM when the dancers had a shift change; the four swing shift girls leaving as they danced their last sets, the six closing shift dancers straggling in, dragging their bags of makeup, dancing wear, shoes and who knows what else in, or having the bouncers drag them in for them, disappearing up the stairs behind the bar in street clothes, descending in lingerie or bikinis, made up to the nines.

By the time the final pair of night shift girls took their respective stages, the stream of customers to the bar, and the constant pop of waitresses trading orders for drinks, had slowed a bit, and I was able to look around the room and catch my breath. I really wanted a smoke, too. “Hey, watch the bar for a minute,” I asked Cecelia, the main stage waitress.

“Ugh,” she said, because she’s an ex-smoker, but she flipped up the gate and came back behind the bar. I grabbed a jacket, made sure my cigs were in there, and went out through the kitchen.

It was a bit chilly for early summer. I lit one up and then walked around the building to the front door. I wanted company. There was an awning that was technically 25 feet from the entrance, although the way the building was situated, with the freeway so close, smoke often got blown inside just from the traffic. It was annoying, even to me: I thought of myself as a considerate smoker. I didn’t want to make trouble for people who lacked my addiction.

Under the awning was a picnic table, and in the dim light I could see a tiny person in a long black trenchcoat sitting on top of the table, her face orange from the glow of the cherry on her cigarette. “Hey, Jamie,” I said.

She scowled but softly. “Good thing there’s no custies out here.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “I mean Hey, Saffron.”

“Sapphire,” she corrected me. She had the coat bundled around her pretty tight. She was probably wearing next to nothing under it.

“Did you change it?”

“No, it’s always been Sapphire. Because of my blue eyes.” She fluttered her lashes at me, laughing and taking a drag.

“Gotcha. So what’s happening tonight? Anything good? Too early to tell?”

“It’s dead, but I’ve only been on stage once. There’s a strange one, though. Tall thin guy, dark hair. Giving me the eye.”

“Oh, him. He’s been coming in, couple of times a week, for a couple of weeks. He’s not being too weird, is he?”

“He’s the only one tipping me, and he was tipping a couple of bucks a song. Not weird. But quiet. Respectful.” She got up, stepping down to the ground and dropping her cigarette into the gravel and crushing it with her clear plastic 9″ heels in a smooth motion. “He’s been paying me a lot of attention. Was here last time I worked, too.” She patted my cheek. “You’re cute when you get all big brother-y. He’s cute, too, but in an intense kind of way.”

“Let the guys know if he shows any sign of trouble, Saff,” I said.

She walked away back into the club. The bouncer opened and held the door for her, introducing a blast of music that soared above the passing cars.

I finished my smoke, tossing the butt in the coffee can on the table, and spent a minute picking up other butts and trash, then walked back around the building to the kitchen door.

A return to the fictional Portland that lives in my head, and is exactly like the real one I’ve lived in almost my entire life.

A taxi pulls up to a ramshackle house in southeast Portland, somewhere between SE Powell and Division, and 39th and 82nd. House, painted gray, maybe decades ago, needing more paint. Boxy shape, flat roof. Garage on the street level and in the front. Stairs leading up to the door on the second story, with a front porch formed by the roof of the garage. Garage door open, and filled with tools and left over construction supplies and sawhorses and gardening supplies and everything else but a car or two. A single light bulb in a fixture meant for two bulbs shone down on the sidewalk, but very little light came from inside the house. Late at night, after the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s mandated 2:30 AM cutoff time for selling liquor, after hours.

The taxi disgorges a slim black-clad figure and a person-sized black canvas box. The figure hands cash to the driver inside, and the taxi pulls away, taking its yellowness away from the black and gray of the neighborhood, taking the engine rumbling and soft hiss of tires against asphalt with it, too, leaving only a distant sound of the highway. And a dog, barking. There’s always a dog barking somewhere.

Jennifer trudged across the sidewalk, under the light, up the stairs, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind her. She smelled of cigarette smoke and creme rinse, just like the heroine of the CAKE song called “Jolene”, even though she didn’t smoke, herself. She wore a black hoodie over blue jeans, but in the suitcase were vinyl pants and leather boots and silken corsets and lingerie, along with hair-care products and makeup, and a textbook or two, and notepads, and CDs, and a wad of money, mostly twenties, that had mostly been given to her a dollar or two at a time and slowly exchanged for larger bills as her evening had progressed.

She was coming home from work at Miss America’s, where she danced and got naked for tips. She was tired, worn out, and pissed off at the nameless faceless men (and women) who had treated her like a prostitute. But she put up with it because she’d made over fifteen hundred dollars, which was a good take for a weeknight.

She unlocked the door (“the thick, breezeway door” she thought, singing the lyrics to the song in her head, though the real door was just a standard front door) and pulled her suitcase in to the front room. She closed the door, quietly, thinking her house mates were all asleep. She left her bag where it was and crossed to the couch. A pile of blankets and pillows obscured the seat, and she started to push it all aside so she could look for the TV remote.

Her hand met something of weight underneath the blankets. Something warm, and solid. “Hey!” shouted the something under the blankets. It rolled over, and sat up.

“Fuck!” Jennifer shouted, then she turned and hit the light switch. “What the fuck?”

The figure on the couch was a skinny brunette girl, like a small scale version of Jennifer. The smaller girl blinked in the sudden light, and held up one arm to block out the light. The arm had a tattoo of a knife down the outside of the forearm, done in blue-black with a bright drop of red blood at the tip. Fake blood, in ink, not real. Cartoonish, even.

“Sheila?” Jennifer asked the smaller girl. “What are you doing here?”

“Shit. I got thrown out.” Sheila fell sideways onto the couch. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. I’m such a fuck up.” She had on a bra and sweats, and her torso had several other tattoos – an Egyptian ankh on her right tit, an orange and red sunburst pattern around her navel, more. She still wore makeup, bright red lipstick, dark eye shadow and eye liner, all of it smeared from her sleep. She hadn’t bothered to remove it before crashing. “I’ve been here since my shift ended. I can’t go back home.”

“Who let you in?” Jennifer scowled, mostly at herself. “I don’t mean it to sound like that. I’m OK with you being here. If you really got thrown out.”

“Meghan said I could crash here. I’m so sorry. It’s been a shitty week.” She rolled over, facing into the couch, as tears started to fill her eyes.

Jennifer pulled the covers over her friend, sat down on top of them. “You need some sleep. We can talk in the morning.”

Sheila sniffled and wiped her eyes. “How are you doing? How’s school and stuff?”

Laughing, Jennifer said, “It’s all good. Professor Yun asked about you a couple of days ago. Wondered why you dropped out. I told her it was… complicated.”

“I couldn’t go back.” She laughed through her tears. “I can’t ever seem to go back anywhere. I was too embarrassed, couldn’t face her after…”

After coming to class one too many times fucked up, Jennifer thought. “She wanted you to know… your paper on reputation-based markets was amazing. She said you may have the nugget of a whole new way of thought. You just need some… discipline.”

“What the fuck ever. I can’t even keep an address for more than a month or two.”

“And I could use some help with my Econ homework, too. I’m just a simple country lawyer. Or, y’know, I will be.”

Sheila rolled over onto her back, looked up at her friend. “Thanks. I can take a look at it in the morning. I kinda enjoyed it. I wish I could stick with it. I’d be the sexiest accountant ever.” She drew the blankets up to her chin and seemed to collapse into herself. “Mostly all I want to do is sleep lately. I barely move when I’m up on the stage.”

“You’re the second person I’ve talked to lately who has no energy. I met this guy last weekend, and he’s so angry all the time… It just drains him, he says.”

“Oh? A cute boy? Does Odd know?”

“Odd knows. Odd knows everything. And this guy just wants to talk politics. I think.”

Sheila sighed, loudly. “That’s another thing I miss about going to school. I miss guys who just want to talk. Nobody seems to want to talk to me anymore.” Her eyes, already red from crying, began filling with tears again, and her lips trembled.

She knew, Jennifer thought, Sheila knew that she was the cause of her own problems.

Neither girl had the courage to say it out loud, though. It was like the elephant in the room about which no one could talk.

An elephant named heroin.

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