Yuletide by Daniel Romo

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Yuletide

I stand in the center of the store and question how I got here. Lost among seasonal blends and the past year. The baristas know my name and start making my drink, even before I pay. Is a man’s predictability worthy of pity or praise? I grip the holiday cup and Starbucks spins. Each past December is projected on the wall, mocking my current existence. A montage of smiling moments contrasting with this protagonist who sits at the coffee bar drowning his blandness in sweetened tea. One second I’m 7 and unwrapping an oversized plastic baseball bat. Then I’m 16 and it’s car keys. Neither of this happened, and this kid is someone else. Because I love punishment and don’t want to see myself happy at any age. Because I left and there’s an unhung stocking stuffed in the box, glittered with my name. My daughter will wake up early on Christmas morning with an eager smile and an absent dad. I’ll sleep in and be greeted to a few dirty dishes and a naked, plastic tree. She will wrap herself in a blanket and unwrap her gifts as the sun rises. I will drape blinking lights across my entire body to remember and rekindle any sort of warmth and illumination.


About the Author: Daniel Romo is the author of When Kerosene’s Involved (Mojave River Press, 2014) and Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013). His poetry and photography can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Gargoyle, The Good Man Project, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and he is an Associate Poetry Editor at Backbone Press. He lives in Long Beach, CA and loves football, but he bleeds Dodger Blue… a lot… More and danielromo.net.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

The Cat by Jeff Fleischer

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Sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve didn’t feel out of the ordinary for David Silver. He was still unmarried, and his last relationship had ended months earlier, before there was even an awkward discussion about whose parents they would visit and how much time he’d need to take off work and what was an appropriate amount to spend on gifts. He was an only child, and had come to an agreement with his parents to take a trip to Vegas together in the spring rather than have him spend an exorbitant amount and battle transit stress to fly to Minneapolis for a few days just because the calendar suggested it.

 

That it was Christmas Eve was largely immaterial to him, since he hung out at the same bar nearly every night anyway. David couldn’t cook worth anything, and it was too cold this time of year to walk to a decent carryout place when the Ceilidh Moon Bar and Grill was located literally forty paces from the front door of his old apartment building, the kitchen was usually open until four, and the tater tots reminded him of the ones his mother fried up when he was little. He would have been sitting there, eating tots and drinking a pint of lager in his usual seat at one end of the curved bar, if it was almost any other Tuesday.

 

On top of all that, he wasn’t even Christian.

 

The one thing out of the ordinary on Christmas Eve was the crowd. The Ceilidh Moon was the kind of place that didn’t stand out in a neighborhood with more than two dozen bars. The crowd most nights consisted mostly of patrons who, while not necessarily regulars, were definitely locals. Couples who’d stop in for a quick bite, guys who would sit at the bar and banter with the bartenders about their day, second shifters taking advantage of their one chance to socialize. Most nights, the jukebox output fit the decor, with the voices of Ronnie Drew or Shane MacGowan mixing with the same kinds of strings, drums, accordions and whistles placed on shelves throughout the establishment. The mood was usually upbeat, but in an everyday, hail-fellow-well-met manner.

 

This night was different. For one thing, there were a lot more people. David wasn’t eavesdropping, but he overheard enough to know at least a few of the bigger groups were made up of high school classmates in town for the holiday, meeting as a way of collectively avoiding family obligations until the next day while ostensibly catching up on the last year. There were more drunks than usual, mostly sad-sack types consuming hard liquor by themselves at the bar, either trying to overcompensate for feeling all alone or trying to forget the people who made them wish they were all alone. The Irish couple who owned the bar and usually served the drinks themselves had taken the night off, leaving the job in the hands of an eager young man and an unsmiling woman back home between semesters of law school, and letting them close at midnight. Even the music was different, as the more transient customers had spent their quarters on seasonal staples by Bobby Helms and Eartha Kitt and Burl Ives.

 

There was also a cat.

 

The cat was directly opposite David, seated on the top of the bar. The very idea of a cat in the Ceilidh Moon was striking and rather weird, but this was also a rather strikingly weird cat. It had the look of a house cat, but was significantly bigger than any he’d ever seen, closer in magnitude to a small dog. David assumed from the cat’s size that it was a he, and he was a mostly black cat with a large, white patch on his chest. The cat sat upright with his front paws touching, and his back paws perfectly aligned alongside them, sitting so still that he could have been a statue if not for the green eyes scanning the room on high alert.

 

“Any idea where the cat came from?” David turned to ask the people sitting next to him, only to find that the two fratty guys who had been there a few minutes earlier were now occupied in a darts game, and that both bartenders were in back. David took another sip from his lager and went back to writing some work ideas on a small notepad. Still, he kept looking across the bar at the cat, who now seemed to be staring specifically at him.

 

By the time the bartender returned with his sandwich and another drink, David had grown bored and started a sketch of the cat on his notepad, figuring the animal’s stillness and focus made it a perfect model. The younger man, whose name tag identified him as Colin, hadn’t seemed to notice the animal’s presence until David asked him, “Do you know what the deal is with the cat?”

 

“No idea. It can’t be the boss’s cat; he’s allergic. Where’d he come from?”

 

“Couldn’t tell you. I just turned around and he was sitting there.”

 

“Heh. It looks like he’s waiting to order. Like he thinks he’s people.”

 

“He definitely looks like he’s waiting for something,” David said. “You could at least give him some milk.”

 

David had been joking, but the bartender took out the cream kept on hand for White Russians and poured some of it into a coffee cup. As he placed it in front of the cat, the animal didn’t appear at all skittish, though he watched Colin intently until the transaction was complete. David could have sworn the cat looked across the bar at him and nodded before starting to lap up the cream with his pink tongue.

 

After watching the animal drink for a bit, David returned to his sketch as the music switched over to Greg Lake professing his belief in Christmas stories. He was nearly finished drawing, and was starting to feel a slight buzz from his beverage, when the jukebox began playing an old chestnut about said nuts roasting on an open fire. He started to hum along, and noticed someone else was humming in the seat next to him.

 

“That’s a good drawing,” said the stout older man, who had sat down without David noticing. “I take it you like cats?”

 

“Yes. I only have one now, but I’ve always had cats.”

 

“Good for you. A lot of people say they’re afraid of them.”

 

“My great-grandmother was like that. She had a lot of superstitions from the old country.”

 

“What old country? What superstitions?” the stranger said. “I’m sorry if I seem nosy. I’m just curious about these kinds of things.”

 

“No, it’s fine. She grew up in a rural part of Ireland where almost everyone believed in stuff like that. She showed me where it was on a map once, but I don’t remember the name. It wasn’t really near Cork, but it was closer to Cork than to any other city, if that makes sense.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“She used to complain because my mother would let our cat in the room when I was a baby. She used to think cats would steal children’s souls while they slept.”

 

“Do you think she really believed that?”

 

“Definitely,” David said, thinking about his long-dead great-grandmother for the first time in years. “When she got sick, she stayed with us for a few months, and she used to lock our cat Tommy in the basement. I could play with him in there, but she wouldn’t let him follow us upstairs. He was the sweetest cat you’d ever meet, and she was absolutely terrified of him.”

 

“I’ve never understood how people could be that afraid of cats.” The stranger scratched his beard, but otherwise gave David his full attention. “They’ve always been perfectly friendly to me.”

 

“It wasn’t just cats; she was superstitious about a lot of things,” David said, surprising himself with how much he remembered. “My mother told me a story once about going to a farm with her. My mother was young, I think twelve or thirteen, and was dying to learn how to ride a horse. So she talked her grandmother into taking her to a farm that had a stable. They drove two hours to get there, and then turned right around. She wouldn’t let my mother learn to ride because the stable only had black horses, and she thought one of them might be a pooka who would carry her off.”

 

“Strange, that. I will say, you seem like you don’t believe any of this stuff.” The stranger signaled to the female bartender, pointing to David’s glass to get him a refill, but without ordering anything for himself.

 

“I’m not much for believing in mythology. I am sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve.”

 

“Surely you know that this day had nothing to do with Christianity,” the man said. “I don’t mean to offend you, but the Christians only used this day to co-opt the winter solstice. A day that belonged to those who came long before them…”

 

“I know all that, and no offense taken. I’m not Christian. I mean, my great-grandmother was, but she was the only one on that side of the family.”

 

David did worry that the stranger might be offending some of the other customers as the man continued to explain the pagan origins of the holiday, how there were and had always been metaphysical forces in the world that animals understand better than people, and how people like his great-grandmother were more in tune than others but didn’t really understand the world. One couple talking nearby left in an unmistakable huff when the man pointed to the bar’s Christmas tree next to the fireplace and called it a “particularly clever way of associating their god with the ancient symbol of everlasting life.”

 

By the time this history lesson was complete, David had finished the last of his food and the fresh drink that arrived. When he was done talking, the stranger stood up to leave. “Thanks for listening to me,” the man said, patting David on the shoulder. He started to walk away, but turned just long enough to say, “Before I forget, when you see O’Toole, tell him that O’Flaherty is dead.”

 

“I don’t know who you mean…” David replied, but the stranger was beyond hearing range, and David didn’t see any reason to chase him down. Instead, he went back to his drawing of the cat. When he looked across the bar to use his model, however, he found the animal had left that spot and the bowl of cream had been licked clean. David continued his sketch from memory, as best he could, listening to one Christmas song after another as the crowd gradually faded. The buzz he’d acquired from his drinks faded a bit less quickly. He paid his check as soon as the younger bartender announced last call at midnight, leaving a generous holiday tip.

 

As the jukebox played Shane and Kirsty singing about the boys of the NYPD choir, David Silver donned his coat and scarf and headed out of the Ceilidh Moon in the early minutes of what had become Christmas Day.

 

*                      *                      *

 

Snow was falling when David left the bar, but the night was actually pleasant. There wasn’t enough to please anyone dreaming of an alabaster holiday, and the lack of wind mixed with his alcohol consumption made the midnight air feel warmer than a thermometer would admit. Warm enough that he decided to walk off what remained of his modest intoxication and pick up a few supplies from the all-night convenience store at the other end of the block. The weather report had predicted a substantial storm coming the following night, and he thought it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.

 

David Silver walked to the end of the street, listening to the sounds made by the bar’s emptying of the night’s last patrons and by a few cars vacating the area as their owners shifted to holiday preparation. In just the time it took him to cover a block, the night had gone silent. Except for one thing. As he passed the alley between the furniture shop and the bookstore, he heard a loud rustling. Turning to look, he could see something was moving in the middle of a pile of trash bags stacked next to an overfilled dumpster. Almost as soon as he turned, a shape emerged from under the pile and sprang out of the alley in David’s direction.

 

Another cat.

 

This one looked a lot like the one he’d seen in the bar, but also different enough that nobody paying attention would ever confuse them for the same individual. This cat was also black, with the same kind of white spot on its chest, though the spot was a little larger and more oblong. The animal was shaped differently than the one he’d seen in the Ceilidh Moon, long and lean where the other was bulky. Still closer to the size of a dog than of a typical cat, but more like a small greyhound in build.

 

Though it darted toward David, the animal stopped abruptly just a few inches from his feet. After his conversation at the bar, David couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how pleased his great-grandmother would have been that he avoided the cat crossing his path. He had yet to encounter a cat-related superstition she hadn’t fervently believed and warned him about in the few years their lives intersected.

 

This cat was also in considerably worse condition than the other one. Its fur was patchy, with some sections appearing sticky or mussed, and others missing as if lost in a fight with other animals. The left ear was missing the tip, and the mostly black fur had a few streaks of grey. The cat’s battle scars weren’t fresh, just signs that the feline had probably used up a few of its allegedly recurring lives.

 

“Hi there, little one,” David said, in the tone of voice he unconsciously reserved for babies and fuzzy animals. “Where’d you come from?” The cat treated the question rhetorically, simply tilting its head and not even giving him a meow. It didn’t try to rub up against him the way cats usually did, but it didn’t flee either; it just sat still and silently regarded him. When David reached down to pat it on the head, the cat reared its head just out of his reach, but the rest of its body stayed in place.

 

David left the animal where it sat, passed the furniture store and went inside the little bodega, which was empty except for a teenage clerk reading a sports magazine and watching stop-motion Christmas cartoons on a small television set. David said good evening and received a mumbled response, then began his impulse-driven shopping for the next few days. A loaf of bread, a half gallon of milk, a block of Colby cheese, a bag of chips. He went back and forth on whether he had paper towels and bar soap in his place, and was equally indecisive about whether he really needed a pint of ice cream, before throwing all those items in his handheld basket. Passing the pet food, he was sure he had more than enough on hand for his own cat, but grabbed one can for the hungry one outside, guessing the tuna flavor was the most universally beloved. The teenager said little as he scanned David’s groceries and arranged them in a large paper bag. David swiped his credit card and wished the clerk a mere goodnight, then corrected himself and added a happy but unspecific holiday.

 

The snowfall was lighter when he returned to the outdoors, and David couldn’t help but catch a few flakes with his tongue. The ground around him featured a light and mostly unspoiled dusting, in which he saw the absent cat’s oversized paw prints leading away from where David last saw it and back toward the alley. When David got to the alley, he took the can of food from the bag and pulled back the ring on top, knowing from experience that the slow scratch of an opening tin was usually an automatic draw for cats.

 

“Here, little one,” he said as he entered into the alley. “I’ve got something for you.”

 

“For me?” a voice replied. David realized there was a gaunt, homeless woman sitting near the dumpster. He couldn’t have guessed her age, with her skin and hair showing heavy damage that could just as easily be from stress or the elements as time. “I appreciate the thought, sir, but we don’t all actually have to eat cat food. Tell you the truth, the restaurants around here throw out a lot of perfectly good food.”

 

“Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” David said, putting the half-open can back in his bag. “I just didn’t see you there.”

 

“Sir, if I’ve learned anything from life on the streets, it’s that most people are experts at not seeing things that are sitting right in front of them. Especially if they’re inconvenient to see.”

 

“Please, I didn’t mean it that way. I just bought this for a cat I saw around here. Really thin, but with a big frame. Black with a white spot.”

 

“I know the cat you’re talking about. You could say she lives here with me.”

 

“Is she your cat?”

 

The woman laughed at that, but it was a wheezy kind that only lasted half a second. “As much as such a thing is possible. We can no more own a cat than we can the wind or the rain. A man can own a dog; that’s as easy as owning a table. Or a horse. A man can even own a donkey, though the beast outlives him more often than not. A cat is different. Don’t you agree?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve had my cat Beauregard for almost nine years, and I raised him from an orphan.”

 

“See, the cat sounds like your ward. You care for him, you feed him, I assume you love him and he probably loves you as well. But he’s no more your possession than you are his.”

 

“It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.” This was the longest conversation David had ever had with a homeless person before money was requested, though he’d already decided to give her the four bucks he had left in his wallet whenever their conversation wrapped.

 

“Look around, sir. I have plenty of time and space to think about things these days. Now, you could call the cat you saw earlier my traveling companion. Do you know the old story of Dick Whittington?”

 

“I think so. The guy who went to London because the streets were paved with gold, and he traveled with a cat…”

 

“The streets in the real world are rarely paved with gold, sir, and it can be a long way down from where we started life. Trust me. But a loyal cat always makes for good company on the journey. Don’t you agree?”

 

“Sure. Does this cat have others like her that hang out in the alley? I saw one earlier tonight that could be her brother, only he was a lot bigger.” David left out anything about that cat’s superior condition, but he was curious if there was an explanation for his random sightings of similar felines. The woman didn’t say anything, but shook her head. “What’s the cat’s name? I hate to just keep calling it ‘the cat.’”

 

“Cats have their own names that aren’t for humans to know. We name them for our own benefit, but they will always know the names they’re born with.” She continued to pontificate on how those who came before understood this better, how the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Celts had held cats in the proper esteem, and how the modern world and its conveniences were replacing this deep connection.

 

She went on like this for a few minutes, obviously glad to have someone listening. David couldn’t quite tell if he was listening to a smart woman who had trouble organizing her thoughts out loud after whatever misfortunes had befallen her, or a harmless but ultimately crazy woman who would be a cat hoarder if she had a permanent residence in which to hoard them.

 

David didn’t want to be rude, but the hour was catching up to him and he was starting to tire of this chat. He gave what he hoped was a realistic yawn, which did interrupt the woman’s train of thought. “It’s getting late, I think I need to get going,” he said, careful to avoid using the word “home” or anything else that might cause offense.

 

“A new king is born today,” the old woman said. It was the first succinct sentence she’d said in a while.

 

“It is Christmas Day, isn’t it? Well, merry Christmas to you…”

 

“No, the real king, of those who came long before. Do you know what this day really means?”

 

Rather than sit through another long lecture like the one he’d received at the bar, David just nodded. “Yes, the celebration of the winter solstice.”

 

“More than that, today. More than that…” The woman suddenly stood up and stumbled closer to him, her voice growing more urgent. “O’Flaherty is dead. You must tell O’Toole.”

 

“I will if I see him,” David replied, knowing nothing about what that meant but at least knowing it meant his two random encounters weren’t entirely random. “Here, before I forget.” He placed his grocery bag on the ground, and found the partially opened tin of cat food. He gave it to the woman, along with his bag of chips. He started to reach for his wallet, but she shook her head and told him the food was all she required.

 

As he left the alley and started walking home, David Silver paused a few times to look for fresh cat tracks in the fallen snow, but discovered that even the ones he’d seen earlier were now covered by a soft layer of virgin powder. Only his own footprints remained.

 

*                      *                      *

 

A few minutes later, David Silver was walking up the fire escape to his second-floor apartment. His arm had gotten tired from carrying the bag of groceries, so he placed it down on the wood railing while he searched his pocket for his keys. Once found, the keys dropped from his hands, and David bent down to pick them up from where they’d landed near his tattered welcome mat.

 

In case his evening hadn’t been sufficiently strange, David found a trio of other objects on the mat, placed at exact intervals. With the limited glow from his porch light, it took him a few seconds to realize what he was seeing. The thing on the left was a dead mouse, or possibly a vole, positioned with all its legs tight against the body so that it looked streamlined. The thing on the right was a similarly arranged dead bird; he assumed it was probably a young finch. In between, there was something shiny and metallic that looked like a small coin or a piece of foil, but he didn’t feel like wiping rodent blood off its surface to find out more.

 

He’d received leavings like this growing up, when he lived in the Minneapolis suburbs and had outdoor cats who would return home with similar trophies. The practice hadn’t gotten less unsettling.

 

David cleaned the mat using the broom and dustpan he kept near the back door, planning to bury the animals the next morning and assuming it was cold enough that there wasn’t a rush to do so. He wasn’t sure what cat left these tokens for him, though he had a pair of suspects. He finally collected his groceries and went inside, wiping his feet a few times on the mat’s bristles. His own pet, an orange cat with a pattern of cream-colored ribbons, greeted him at the door as always, headbutting David’s legs as he removed his shoes and socks. “Hi buddy, I’m happy to see you too,” he said as he put his bag on the kitchen counter and picked up Beauregard. “I know, it’s been sooooo long. I haven’t seen you in six whole hours.” He usually made jokes like this about his cat’s affectionate greetings, but he never tired of the animal’s reliable excitement at his arrival.

 

Once the food was put away, the mail was sorted and a restroom trip was completed, David flopped down on the worn armchair in his living room. He put his feet up on the ottoman and turned on the television, changing the channel a few times before he found Jimmy Stewart dressed in a football outfit and talking to a bush. Beauregard jumped up and wedged himself in the open space formed by David’s outstretched and crossed legs, staring at his owner and letting out a quiet meow. Knowing what the cat wanted, and knowing the neighbors both upstairs and downstairs were out of town and out of earshot, David took his tin whistle off the end table and played a few notes of “An Maidrin Rua.” His pet joined in by meowing, one of the quirky behaviors David had discovered in his kitten nine years ago and used treats to reinforce until it became a repeatable trick.

 

A few seconds later, Beauregard was voicing a different meow and looking at something in the window behind the television. David couldn’t quite see it, but his cat was staring intensely, with his body pointing in that direction like a hunting dog. David got up and walked over, the orange cat running under his feet, and saw exactly what he had come to expect.

 

Another cat. This one sitting on the railing of the fire escape, staring directly into his home. Also black, also with a white spot, also bigger than an average cat.

 

“That does it,” David said, to nobody in particular. He rushed into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes without bothering to tie them, and grabbed his coat from where he’d left it on the counter. He checked the door to make sure it wouldn’t lock behind him, then sprang out onto the wooden fire escape just in time to see the cat leap off the railing.

 

Before he could get a closer look, David noticed a strange texture under his foot and found someone had left a piece of paper on his welcome mat. When he bent down to get it, he could feel it was something thicker, some kind of strange parchment, and the stock showed a great deal of wear. The message on it, written in an elaborate script and with a fragrant ink, was something more familiar. “Tell O’Toole that O’Flaherty is dead.” He also noticed that the dead animals and metal piece he’d earlier removed from his doormat had been moved, and found them on the window sill near where the cat had been sitting, arranged exactly as they’d been when he first found them.

 

David walked over to where the cat had jumped down, and scanned the area below to see where it might have gone. The cat was nowhere to be seen. Instead, David saw a thin man pacing slowly in the alley. He wore a sweatshirt too light even for such a mild winter night, with the hood pulled up over his head.

 

“Hey you!” David yelled. “You, in the hood.” The figure turned, but with the sweatshirt hood over his head and with so little light in the alley, David couldn’t see the man’s face. The hooded man’s head moved as if he was saying something, but he pointed at his own mouth, shaking his head to indicate he either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. “Did you leave me this?” David called down, holding up the piece of parchment and growing angry when the stranger nodded in response. “I don’t know either of these people, and I don’t know why everyone seems to think I do.” He’d thought about it, too, searching his memory throughout the evening for any O’Toole he might have known in the past and recalling only a famous actor he’d never personally met and the name of a local bar that had closed years earlier. “Why do people keep telling me about this? What do they think I can do about it?”

 

Predictably, the man below him didn’t answer, only nodding to indicate that he’d heard the complaints. David continued to list details about his night, about the repeated requests to convey the death of another person he’d never met, about the cats he kept seeing, about how he was just tired and wanted to go to sleep and be left alone to enjoy a needed day off from work. The hooded figure’s body language made it seem like he was listening, but he said nothing in reply. “You know what?” David said at last. “You want to tell O’Toole your news, why don’t you find him and tell him yourself?” He was conscious that he was speaking a little loudly for two in the morning on Christmas Day, but there was no sign that anybody else in the area cared. The snow had truly started to fall by now, and David wanted to say his piece and then go back inside.

 

When David was done, the man in the hoodie raised his right arm and pointed at something on the other side of the alley, through the metal back gate of the vintage apartment building behind David’s. He strained to see what the man was pointing at, trying to make it out through both the wind-blown flakes and the tightly designed links of the gate.

 

What David saw was the rounded shape of a small headstone, too far away for him to read the inscription. He could tell it wasn’t made of familiar letters, but instead marked with some kind of symbols or runes. At first he thought this was intended as a threat, or a grim warning of the future, maybe a sign that O’Flaherty hadn’t done what he was told. A second later, however, he could see something moving toward the stone. The black shape was difficult to see against the poorly lit sky, but it soon revealed itself as a cat. Then David saw another.

 

He soon realized he was looking at nine cats, all black, all the same breed as the three he’d seen earlier that night. For all he could tell, those three were among the ones he was seeing. The cats were moving in two rows, on both sides of a black, rectangular object that could only be a coffin. Eight of the animals were pushing it, with one cat leading the procession. The sight was strangely hypnotic, but soon the snowfall completely blocked David’s view of the cats. When he looked around, he noticed that the man in the hoodie was also gone, his footsteps already masked by fresh snow.

 

Several times, David checked the spot where he’d seen the nine cats, but couldn’t see them anymore. He couldn’t even see the headstone, and began to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing. After all, he was running on very little sleep, had been out drinking, and had experienced enough strange encounters in the past few hours that his imagination could be forgiven for getting away from him. He waited a few more minutes to see if he might be able to glimpse the funeral again, before the cold and his exhaustion urged him to give up and go back inside.

 

*                      *                      *

 

David’s cat greeted him at the door, rubbing against his owner’s legs, then sprinted away and planted himself next to his food dish, meowing. Figuring Beauregard was confused by his coming and going, David relented and gave his pet a rare extra meal, filling the bowl only halfway full of kibble. While the orange cat ate, David took off his coat, his jeans, and his long-sleeve shirt. Now dressed in the white tee and boxers that doubled as his standard pajamas, he took the piece of parchment he’d found on the welcome mat, balled it up, and shot it like a basketball into his kitchen trashcan. He turned on his electric coffeepot and used it boil water for a cup of herbal tea, which he spiked with a few drops of whiskey to help him wind down before bed.

 

With Beauregard at his heels, David took his hot toddy into the living room and turned on the television, where George Bailey was now being tossed out of a once-familiar watering hole. He took his fiddle down from its usual spot on his decorative but dormant fireplace and flopped down in his chair, while the cat took his usual spot on the ottoman. Figuring a song would help him forget the strangeness of his evening, David began to play “Carrickfergus” and sing along as best he could with a throat still constricted from the cold.

 

He was only on the second verse when his phone started to ring. At first, David worried some neighbor had canceled their overnight plans and his music was too loud for them. When he answered the call, he was relieved to find it was his grandmother in Killarney calling to wish him a happy holiday, repeating her pattern of miscalculating time zones ever since he’d left his home state. She apologized when he pointed out that it was past two in the morning, but he told her he was still awake and could talk. They went through their normal phone exchange, with David explaining that work was fine, that he wasn’t seeing anyone but was working on it, that his parents were doing fine, that he was not in need of money but grateful for her offer.

 

When she asked what he was doing awake in the middle of the night, David was actually grateful to have someone to tell about his past few hours. He began his story with how he got home from work and went to the pub for dinner, explaining the cat and the stranger in the bar. He noticed that Beauregard seemed to take an interest in this part of the story, sitting upright and looking at him with the same concentration the cat usually reserved for requesting food or hearing his name called. David figured it must owe to his repeated use of the word “cat,” one of the human terms he knew his pet recognized.

 

The cat continued to focus on David as he recounted the rest of the story. He told his grandmother about the homeless woman and how he gave her cat a can of food, and about the hooded man in the alley who left him a note, though he avoided mentioning the procession of cats, which he found too strange to share. “I almost forgot the most curious part,” David said. “They all told me the same thing. They said that O’Flaherty was dead, and that I was supposed to tell O’Toole. I don’t even know anybody named O’Toole.”

 

While David’s words prompted his grandmother to suggest possible sources of O’Tooles he could contact, they got a different response from Beauregard, one David wouldn’t have believed if it had happened even eight hours earlier.

 

His cat spoke.

 

At first, it was in a language David didn’t understand, something that sounded vaguely Celtic. It was definitely speech, not a meow or a growl, in a voice much deeper than the cat’s normal pitch. The cat cocked his head at David, who had dropped his conversation and was staring in silence at his pet.

 

Beauregard regarded him for a moment, then spoke again, this time in perfect English. “O’Flaherty is truly dead?” the animal asked. David just nodded slowly, too shocked to speak. “Then I am the king of the cats.” With that, the cat leaned forward in a slight bow and then bolted.

 

David dropped the phone, though he could hear his grandmother’s voice through the speaker, asking if he was still there. Before he could even get up from his chair, his cat had run into the old fireplace and up the shaft. David followed and looked up, but the animal had been too fast, and must have gotten out of the building. He ran into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes and coat, and searched the fire escape for the cat. He didn’t see him anywhere.

 

Unsure what else to do, David spent the rest of the small hours wandering the few blocks around his house, calling for his cat and keeping an eye out for any more black cats with white spots who might provide clues. The snow was falling faster and the wind was getting strong, but he continued his search, checking every alley and driveway in the neighborhood.

 

David was still searching when the sunrise came, and the expanses of white around him reflected its early morning light. Not long after, the church bells nearby began to ring out for Christmas Day, and the quiet streets started to fill with people en route to their holiday plans. David took one more stroll around the area, wondering if he could explain what had happened to anyone else without seeming crazy.

 

Finding no clues and struggling to stay awake, David Silver felt he had no choice but to return to his apartment and wait for his unusual cat to return.


About the Author: Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

SHOTGUN CHRISTMAS by Ephraim Sommers

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SHOTGUN CHRISTMAS

If you don’t believe in heaven, what then
is holy? Before dinner, your diabetic father
punching a syringe into his belly, fill your mother
with Rockstar and orange juice, fill
a wooden pipe with a squeeze of weed,
and she will have your father leaning back
in his wooden chair, laughing the tears out
of his eyes. Your mother with a dark tooth
up front, cock-a-doodle-dooing, palming
a stray punch sent from your sister to you
over the already-been-beaten beef, and the salads
oversalted the way your family loves them,
and the television’s volume pumped. Your mother
covers your eyes with a biscuit to keep the cold
from your dreams. The eighteen-wheeler queen,
she’s the hot hand in meatloaf. Your mother
would drag a boxed-up house on a flatbed trailer
to Baton Rouge tonight if you asked her.
But you’re staying scared of the outside world.
Frost is rumored this Christmas Eve, and she’s outside
axing the kindling, singing “Smackwater Jack”
as she wheelbarrows wood up the three front stairs.
And in she whishes in a wife-beater and pink slippers
and cut-off jeans with an armful of pine. Susan or Suzie
or How-Do-You-Do-Sue, she’s got your father
kneeling, balling newspaper into the fireplace,
your sister whipping double chocolate malts
as punishment. It’s past your bedtime, and in your dream
the clouds will crack like a ceiling, will suck you over
the barbed fences and almond orchards of a strange frontier,
will grind your teeth to a white dust something
like frost. You will wake screaming. Your room nightlit,
Santa won’t arrive in your doorway, but your mother will,
barefoot, in a nightgown and curlers with a sawed-off
shotgun dangling from her right hand. It will be
the most fragile thing you’ll ever see in your life.

 


About the Author: Ephraim Sommers is a doctoral fellow at Western Michigan University where he teaches creative writing. His work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, Cream City Review, Harpur Palate, The Journal, Prairie Schooner, RATTLE, TriQuarterly, Verse Daily, Word Riot, and elsewhere.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

The Christmas Party (1968) by Warren Read

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It was almost five-thirty by the time they pulled out of their driveway and onto the boulevard. The roads were already glassy and slick, and a white crystalline fog draped from the line of streetlamps. Gil held tightly to the wheel, his back inches from the seat as he hunched forward. The car floated down Firdale as if it were flying through space.

“I’m only going to say this once,” Beverly said. “Don’t you dare embarrass me tonight.” She thumbed the cigarette lighter into the dash and reached into her purse for her cigarettes. It was hot in the car. The heater was forcing air over the dashboard and drying out her face. She leaned forward and worked herself free of her wrap. “I swear to God I couldn’t take it.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean it, Gil.” She tamped the pack of Pall Malls against her palm then drew one out like it was a knife. “If she’s there, I better not see you anywhere near her.”

They were coming up to the highway interchange and the traffic light was turning. A Buick punched hard to make the yellow and shot through, fishtailing as it rounded the corner, shark fins leaving a streak of read light as it disappeared. Another car, waiting at the cross street, laid on its horn. Gil tapped the brakes and came to a slow and steady stop.

“It’s a goddamned party,” he said. He turned to her, a half-cocked grin smeared over his face. It was the same look he’d given when faced with the discovered note, the note she’d carefully taped together and laid out on the kitchen table next to his morning coffee.

“I might have to exchange small talk with her,” he said, “but that’s it. I won’t embarrass you.”

The lighter emerged and she took it, pressing it to the cigarette that was already waiting in her pursed lips. Her cheeks collapsed, hungry, the cherry tip blazing the dashboard in an orange glow.

“You better hadn’t,” she said, filling the space with blue smoke. “You better hadn’t slip up or so help me.”

 

Gil pulled the Pontiac Bonneville next to the front steps, the headlights washing over the brick and illuminating the slim, copper lettering of his name.  G. E. Weaver, Office Supply. The frosted window adjacent the door blinked red and green and as Gil climbed out of the car he could hear the waves of laughter already happening inside. He looked at his watch. He was not twenty minutes late and yet they had begun without him.

He swung open the front door like a king entering his castle. With the constellation of lights draped from the ceiling and the fat tree taking up the corner near the filing cabinets, and the spread of hors d’oeuvres and liquor lining the wall outside the conference room, it was almost easy to pretend that this place was different from the one he had to force himself to embrace each day. These people—these revelers who stood oblivious to his entrance as they clutched glass tumblers rattling with ice and whiskey, heads thrown back in throaty laughter—lived their daytime hours hovered over silent telephones or pecking at typewriters that had been purchased with borrowed money, or lurking at the leased water cooler, only to scatter like pigeons whenever he came into the room. Tonight, though, it was as if he didn’t exist.

“And the general has arrived!” At last Frank McNeil broke from a cluster of accountants and crossed the room to Gil. He carried his drink with him like Lady Liberty’s torch, high over his head as he weaved through the small crowd. “I thought I’d be the only one coming stag.”

Gil looked to the closed door behind him. Beverly was nowhere in sight. The wreath hung from the hook, a ring of cedar springs that his secretary Doris had so carefully braided the week before. It had already begun to curl at the tips.

“Beverly must be taking one last look in the mirror,” he quipped. Frank had chosen to wear a polo shirt to a Christmas party, the kind of attire that might have been appropriate for a summer picnic. It was the kind of thing that got under Gil’s skin, the lack of spirit around these kinds of things.

“So she came with you.” Frank said through that horsey smile of his, the glint of gold in his molars caught by the ceiling lights.

“Of course.”

Frank looked back over his shoulder then, to the group that was crowded near the tree. They were the younger salespeople, Tom Connelly, Clarence White and Charlie somebody, the guy with the last name Gil could never remember.

Standing with them as well, facing away from Gil, was Ellie.

The tree had been dressed with a long string of red lights, and it cast a tawdry glow over the two-dozen silver balls that Doris had procured from the bargain shelf at the local drugstore and Ellie was there, her back to Gil, dressed in a mid-length skirt that almost reached the tops of her naked calves. She stood with her knee bent slightly as if her stopping to talk with the salesmen had been an afterthought, or a mere pause on her way to someplace else. In one had she gripped a slender glass, tilted almost imperceptive, her other hand cupped beneath her elbow. Her hair fell to her collar like spun gold.

“Well then.” Frank’s eyes carved into Gil, the same, stupid grin still plastered over his face. He raised his glass. “Merry Christmas.”

 

Beverly held her cigarette between her teeth as she entered, the platter of deviled eggs weighing down her arms. Johnny Mathis trilled from a Hi Fi that somebody had set up against the wall. It was too loud; people were shouting just to be heard over the music. Reams of crepe paper sagged from the walls and ceiling, layered in and over lights that dropped a glow of red and green onto the Aqua Net and Brylcreem-molded heads of everyone in the room. The cardboard cutouts of snowmen and reindeer and gold bells were the same ones that Beverly had bought from Woolworth’s almost two decades earlier, when she and Gil had put together the business with nothing but a hundred thirty dollars and a penciled plan. There were no kids to get in the way, though it was certainly not for lack of trying, and as such there was no reason to do up the house in baubles and festive gaudiness. She played the part when she needed to, though. The first dozen years she’d come in the day after Thanksgiving to drag the decorations out from the back storage room by herself. She thumbtacked each one to the walls, and then she strung the miles of garland and lights from the ceiling and when it was time for the Christmas party, she prepared every bit of food that was eaten. Now, she couldn’t care less who put the whole damned thing together.

Doris suddenly appeared and reached out for the platter. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Weaver,” she said. “I can take that from you.”

Doris Sanford was a small woman who always struck Beverly as something of a squirrel, her tiny hands always snatching up things needing to be filed away or tossed or sent out with the morning mail, constantly brushing surfaces clean, straightening out clutter with the kind of nervous energy that Beverly found exhausting but admirable. She liked Doris. She had always liked her, and believed with all her heart that if it had not been for Gil’s secretary the business would have been swallowed up years ago. In fact, it was not too odd of a supposition that Gil himself might have expired years ago if it had not been for Doris and her keen ability to keep both her boss and the office in tidy order.

Beverly handed over the eggs and thanked her, then slid her wrap from her shoulders and looked around for a place she could leave it without having to worry about a spilled drink or the sticky fingers of one of the younger wives. At various turns the faces in the room looked to her, some full on, others only slightly, as if she were a bird that had flown in by mistake and had perched itself upon a desk. They glanced at her and then some of them, almost as if on cue, looked over at the clique of young people clustered around the red Christmas tree as if warming themselves by a fire.

That girl was there with them, all twenty-two years or so of her. In a schoolgirl dress cropped just above the knees, sipping a drink that she was surely barely old enough to have. She did not look back at Beverly though, even when one of the boys leaned in and whispered something in her ear. She just shook her head ever so gently and tipped the glass to her lips.

 

Gil was halfway through his second scotch when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Mr. Weaver, the checks.” He turned to see the grimace and worry lines of Bud Clifton, his payroll manager. In his hand Bud clutched a large manila envelope, and he leaned in uncomfortably close to Gil as he spoke. “Are you certain?”

Gil looked at the envelope, at the sharp edge of the sealed lip and the smooth paper so clean and promising in Bud’s chapped red fingers. Around him, people continued to talk over one another, and take their Zippos from their pockets to light a colleague’s smoke, and rattle ice-filled glasses as they rebalanced their weight from one foot to the other. He nodded his chin toward his office and the two of them slipped from the crowd, past the food table where Beverly stood with a couple of the wives, each of them with a streaming cigarette in her fingers. She glanced in his direction as he went by, but did not linger on him for more than a few seconds.

Behind the door of his office the suspension of noise was immediate. He snapped on the lamp and took a seat behind his desk, and leaned back in the chair with his hands clasped behind his neck. He tightened his brow, that mask of irritation that he worked so well. It was funny to him how easily he slid into that role, the exasperated boss, so inconvenienced at having to hear news that was unpleasant, especially from a man who had no business judging him for his shortcomings. His failings. Bud stood opposite him, hands clasped in front of him, envelope draped at his lap like it was a loincloth.

“Bud,” Gil said. “Let’s not do this all over again.”

“Of course, Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s just that—“ He ran his fingers along the edge of the envelope. “You know I have the utmost respect for you and for this company. It’s taken good care of me, and my family, for over ten years now.”

“Yes it has. I have.”

“Yes.” He tapped the envelope against his leg. “You are a generous man, sometimes to a fault, if I might say so. I only hope that you know what you’re doing with these.”

Gil listened to the words as they swirled in the room, and to the swaying music that still managed to find its way under the door. They were having a fine time out there getting oiled on gin and vodka and scotch that he had bought, that he had carried in on his own the day before. And they would be even more grateful when they opened their checks. It was Christmas and though only about half of them really deserved it, bonuses were part of the deal.

“I know the numbers have slid a bit lately,” he said, though he knew full well it was more than just lately. The entire year things had been spiraling, one more piece of fallout from the Vietnamese and their goddamn war. Offices everywhere were tightening their belts to the point of suffocation. Nobody was purchasing a single sheet of paper if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. “We can deal with it after the New Year.”

“With all due respect Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s not a matter of sliding—“

Gil stood up from his seat and held his hands in front of him. He said nothing, but closed his eyes. They stood there, neither of them talking or even looking at one another. Finally Gil opened his eyes and took the envelope.

 

 

She had overheard them talking about the bonuses, debating whether or not they might get them after all. The longtime employees, the older ones, carried a roll of thunderous doubt in their words. “It’s been a lean year,” they said. “Tough times call for tough decisions.” The younger ones had neither the experience nor the common sense to be so pragmatic. “Weaver’s a good guy,” they said. “He’ll come through.”

So when Gil came out from his office with that big envelope in his hand, Beverly expected he would very soon get hold of a glass, and he did. He poured himself a tall scotch—at least a double—and downed it like he was about to charge into battle. Immediately he took on another one, this time tossing in a few ice cubes before heading off across the room, to the small crowd against the Christmas tree.

Beverly found herself looking for the door, an escape before he could do anything that would make it impossible for her to leave with the smallest shred of dignity. Just as she turned to retreat to the kitchen, a woman Beverly had never seen before in her life stepped in front of her. She had one of those cheap, nylon scarves that she’d knotted at her throat and she reeked of whiskey, and her lipstick bled past the edges, creeping like tree branches into her skin. Holding an ice-filled glass in each hand, she shoved one toward Beverly.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you have one drink since you’ve been here,” she said.

Beverly pulled back. “I’m not partaking tonight,” she said.

“Come on, now,” the woman insisted. “A woman deserves to let her hair down once in awhile.” She pushed the glass on her again. “Have a little fun.”

Beverly stepped back again. She didn’t want a drink and she certainly didn’t want one from this woman, who was probably only positioning herself between Gil and that girl to create a distraction, a barrier that would allow the boss to sneak a comment or a ridiculous peck on cheek underneath whatever sprig of mistletoe had been taped to the doorjamb. Beverly put her hands out as a defensive gesture, certainly not something meant to be rude or aggressive. But in doing so she must have been too eager. Her hand caught the woman’s wrist, sending one of the glasses skyward. Liquid splashed over the both of them, most of it falling down onto the front of Beverly’s dress, ice cold and jolting, the glass hardly making a sound as it came to rest on the carpet.

“And there we are,” Beverly said. “Perfect.” She looked around for something to daub at herself with, but there was nothing.

“You didn’t have to take a swing at me, lady,” the woman said.

“If I’d taken a swing at you honey, you’d know it.” Beverly looked down at her dress to try and see the damage through the stuttering lights. The woman kept talking but the words seemed to be slipping under the music’s surface.

“Is everything all right here, Mrs. Weaver?” It was Doris. She huddled closely to the woman, worry creased over her brow as she glanced from Beverly’s chest to the carpet.

“Mrs. Weaver?” the woman said. Her crude lips parted, as if she might suddenly start wailing right there. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” She reached up and pulled the scarf from her neck, then began frantically pawing at Beverly’s chest. “I had no idea who you were, no idea whatsoever.”

“It’s fine,” Beverly said, taking the cheap scarf. “It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“Are you all right, Mrs. Weaver?” Doris asked again. Now she dropped her arm between the women.

“I said I was fine, Doris.” Her tone was hard, not what she had intended. She reached out in a kind reassurance to both women, taking each of their wrists gently in her hands. “Everything is just fine. Please. Enjoy the party. It’s Christmas.”

The woman ducked away and Beverly scanned the room. Gil was near the Christmas tree now, talking with the group of youngsters. The girl wasn’t there, at least not that Beverly could see.

Gil stood on swaying bowlegs, a hand clasped to the shoulder of one of the men, surely half his age. Beverly decided they were over there cracking off-color jokes and spewing out the latest lingo, Gil trying desperately to keep up, showing all the grace of a cripple. If it had been any other night or place she would have been over there in five strides, her fingernails sunk to the quick into his arm as she dragged him from the place.

Doris put a hand gently on Beverly’s shoulder and guided her through the crowd to the small kitchen, through the side door. The lights inside the room were harsh, and Beverly could finally see that the spot down the front of her blue dress was ample but thankfully clear.

“Thank goodness for gin and tonic water.”

 

Gil emptied his glass, the ice cubes stinging as he held it to his lips. He’d lost track of Bob Callahan’s story some minutes earlier. He felt as though there must be a point coming soon and he fought to stay focused on his voice, struggling to keep from breaking eye contact and looking around the room. Where was Ellie? It was funny, he thought, how the mere glow of red and green lights and good scotch, and the placement of time in the after hours could make the room so sexy. Ellie had almost driven him mad when he’d laid eyes on her in that skirt and in the hour since he walked in it had taken every ounce of reserve to keep from seeking her out, Beverly or no Beverly. He could see the mood in the other men’s eyes as well in the way they looked at their wives and the women who were not their wives. It was in the tight manner in which they touched each other’s elbows and gripped shoulders when they leaned in to talk. They felt it, too. Surprisingly even Beverly, bound so tightly in her own skin, gave him a kind of stir in his legs that he hadn’t felt around her in ages.

Ellie done something real for him on those first days, something in the way she hooked her finger through her hair as she talked to him, as she read off the new account numbers then somehow managed to insert a remark about the thickness of his arms against his shirtsleeves. She expressed genuine shock that he might be old enough to be her father. “That’s not possible,” she said, and even an obvious eye roll from Doris couldn’t deflate his turgid ego.

His head was swimming. It had been a good ten minutes since he’d seen either Beverly or Ellie and a swell of nausea overtook him as he imagined they must be alone somewhere, maybe outside in the parking lot or in one of the storerooms. Would they be engaged in a vicious fight over him? Would Ellie come stumbling through a door any minute, hand to her mouth, her swollen cheeks soaked with tears? Or worse. Maybe they were off in the kitchen, leaned back against opposite shelving and laughing hysterically over shared stories of him, two women finding that shared connection to a louse that was worthy of neither.

“She’s gone out the back door.” A man’s breath, thick with the smell of whiskey, brushed against Gil’s ear like a passing suitor’s. And yet as jolted as he was, Gil—liquor-soaked to the skull—could not turn himself in time to see who had offered up this sweetest bit of news.

 

“I’m really very sorry, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris said. She ran a handful of paper towels under the faucet. “She’s not been here very long, but she should know better.”

“I suppose so,” Beverly said. “I was about to call a taxi to take me home, anyway.”

“I could call for one if you like,” Doris said. “It would be a shame, though. You and Mr. Weaver just arrived.”

“I know.”

“I hope nothing unseemly happened.” She handed the towels to Beverly, leaned back against the counter and clasped her hands together at her waist. “Did someone say something to upset you?”

And the way Doris looked at her, with her stretched, penciled brow, cherry-red lips drawn down at the edges, Beverly knew she was talking about the girl. That apple-cheeked bobbysoxer who liked to drink her cocktails with cola, and write notes with loopy penmanship, with words like “handsome” and “smart” underlined, who tossed her hair over her shoulders while the men around her circled like wolves.

“I don’t know how you do it, Doris,” Beverly said, daubing the towel over her dress. “All these years.”

“Do what?”

“Put up with him. This place. You get no credit, as far as I can see. He takes it all. But that’s all fine and good, because it won’t be much longer before he’ll be taking all the blame as well.”

Doris bowed her head, and Beverly could see the curl of a smile forming. She drew in a breath as if she was might say something, but she stopped.

“What is it, Doris?” Beverly put a hand on her shoulder.

“Nothing, Mrs. Weaver.”

“Tell me,” she said. “You know, don’t you?”

Doris looked up at Beverly. “Know what?” she said. “About the girl?”

Beverly waved her off. “Oh please,” she said. “Everyone out there knows about that. They’re all just pretending it’s the biggest secret in the room, when they haven’t the slightest idea what you and I know.”

“This party?”

“It’s the last one.”

Doris nodded, her smile one that struck Beverly strangely as one of relief. “I thought as much,” she said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure this one was even going to happen.”

“It shouldn’t have,” Beverly said. “But here we are.” And when Doris bowed her head again Beverly said, “I don’t want you to worry, though. We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, somehow.”

“Oh, I’m not worried, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris smiled. “I’ve been working since I was old enough to vote. I’ll land on my feet.”

“Of course you will. I envy that about you. Your independence. You could walk out that door and keep right on going if you wanted. You have the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“It’s true. Anyone would be a fool not to hire you right off.”

Doris shook her head. “In that case there’s nothing standing in your way, either.”

Beverly laughed. “I’m a forty five year-old woman who hasn’t held a job since the counter at a soda fountain. What have I got to offer?”

“Everything. This isn’t 1920, you know. The world is a big place.”

She laughed again. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?” And it was then that Beverly noticed on the far countertop, beside the shared refrigerator, a sizable manila envelope, precariously hanging over the edge as if it had been hastily set down and carelessly left behind.

 

He didn’t think of the temperature when he slipped out the door to the back alley steps. It had been cold when he and Beverly arrived, of course, but he’d been wearing his overcoat. Now he’d somehow reduced himself to shirtsleeves, and the still December air took hold of him like it had been waiting for him all along. He took the ice-encased stairs slowly, gripping the iron railing as his mind swam, his body swaying like he was a marionette.

The parking lot for his employees lay on the other side of 4th Street, kitty corner from the building. It was a lot shared with a neighboring attorney’s office and it was fairly well hidden behind a row of junipers. Still, he could see that the space was half as full as it was during the day, and the windshields were chalky and sparkling under the high moon. He slid across the street and slipped through a pair of trees, moving down the open center as the ice crunched under his heels, each step carefully and meticulously put down.

The previous July, Ellie had bought a used Volkswagen from Atlas Autos down on Highway 99. It was one of those little bugs that the California surfers and college kids were always driving around. At first Gil had tried to talk her out of it, encouraging her to get into something sturdier, safer. But she’d been so eager about it so he instead decided he’d go with her to look it over and to manage the deal for her. He knew how salesmen were with girls like her. Things had been more or less over between them by then, at least the heaviest of it had subsided. “Let me do this for you,” he’d told her. “No strings.”

“There’s always strings,” she said in return. But by three o’clock she was standing at his office door with her handbag and that look that always made him want to give her his entire world and then some.

 

He moved to the far end of the lot, keeping his body close to the cars and touching the cold, hard edges of fenders as he went. Each pass between them was a treacherous divide, his shoes unable to find a single ounce of traction and it was only when he sat hard on the bumper of an Impala, his pants leg catching against the rusted exhaust, that he had to admit to himself that that little blue Beetle with the Mexican blanket draped over the backseat was nowhere in sight.

He reached down to his leg and slid the fabric over his calf. A stripe of blood glared back at him, the shock of cold air giving a healthy sting. “Gil Weaver you are the punchline to one big, fat joke,” he said aloud. Across the street the flicker of red and green blurred over the side window as, inside, people laughed and raised drinks, probably to him and the hopes of another year. God willing, he’d make it happen but in the meantime he needed to get his head together because he had a part to play. For his employees, for his wife. And he had to find where he’d put that damned envelope.

He stood and shook the snow from his hands and made his way across the street to the rear entrance. He seemed surer of himself now than he had earlier, as if he’d finally figured out the correct placement of rubber soles on ice, the distribution of his body’s weight. He imagined reappearing from the back hallway, most everyone not even noticing he’d been gone. Perhaps there would be a few—Beverly included—who would mention how they’d lost track of him. But he’d have been in his office, or splashing some water on his face in the lavatory.

So when he took to the stairs this time he failed to recall how important the iron railing had been on his way out. He forgot the way the frozen steps had seemed to roll beneath his feet and how his arms had operated more or less as stands to prop his unstable body up. His foot landed fully on the third step, the weight of his body and the complete absence of any reasonable level of traction causing his legs to yank back as if pulled by a rope. His body lunged forward, his forehead squarely striking the step’s edge with a crack that began and ended with a glorious white flash of light.

 

He awoke to the sound of a horn blasting somewhere in the distance. The cold ache of gravel pressed his back as he lay flat at the base of the stairs, one leg curled beneath the other. He pressed his hands to the ground and attempted to push himself upward but there was not enough strength to make it happen. It was like all the wires inside had been cut. His head throbbed and he had the keen sensation of warmth streaming from his hairline down to his ear. At the same time a cold burn rolled over his groin and he glanced down to see that he had in fact pissed himself. He reached to his forehead. Just over his eyebrow was the wet, deep chasm of a clean slice, viscous and flowing.

“Help!” He lay on his back and shouted up into the sky. He sucked in a deep breath that laid fire to his throat, coughed until his chest pinched back and tried again. He continued that way, clouds of steam billowing from his face and quickly dissipating, vanishing into the bitter night air.

 

 

“I honestly don’t know where he’s gone Mrs. Weaver.” They stood just outside Gil’s office, Doris holding Beverly’s eyes, face like stone, refusing to give up anything more than the obvious. Of course the girl hadn’t been seen either, not for well over an hour.

“Please don’t, Doris.” Beverly held the envelope against her breasts. “We might not know where he is, but we know what he’s doing while he’s there.”

Doris’ shoulders dropped. She looked down at the manila envelope then back to Beverly. “What do you want done with those?”

“Hand them out,” she said, passing the packet to Doris.

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want you to hand over every single one with a smile and a ‘Merry Christmas from Mr. and Mrs. Weaver’ personally. And then I want you to turn up that music and make sure that they have the best, damned Christmas party this place has ever seen.”

Doris straightened up and smiled and nodded, just as she always did when given an impossible task. Then she cocked her head. “Are you sure you don’t want to do it yourself?” she asked. “It would sure mean a lot to them.”

Beverly took her wrap from the coat rack and circled it over her shoulders. “I’ve a taxi waiting,” she said. “When and if he comes back just tell Mr. Weaver that I suddenly developed a splitting headache. Tell him I said, ‘Have a wonderful time,’ and that I made my way home on my own.”

With that, Mrs. Weaver disappeared out the front door, and Doris did as she was told, making the rounds from partygoer to partygoer, thumbing envelopes and rewarding each person with his or her personal gift and greetings, as well as a stern warning against using the back door to the alley. It was dangerous on a night like this, she insisted. And besides, there was an abundance of food and drink, and many hours left in the night.

 


About the Author: Warren Read is the author of a memoir, The Lyncher in Me (2008, Borealis Books) and his fiction has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, Inklette, and Switchback. He received his MFA in 2015 from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

Bad xmas by Courtney Leigh

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Bad xmas

#hungrybutnotlooking: A Charlie Brown Story

Xmas is the emptiest time of year. Charlie Brown’s been eating chocolate santas all month in an attempt to stay warm. From cherry hat to toothache, he gorges on the supple little santas & kisses Lucy with bleeding gums & molars. She cums & goes home to her parents a vampire—such a pale Xmas miracle! They dress her in a gold funerary gown & put her in a coffin full of wilting hollies, covered in a coaled despair. May she rest in pieces, thinks Charlie Brown plopping another chocolate santa into his poisoned gut. He barks wildly the night searching for blood, maddened, stomach churning. A jovial toxicity swells as the santas form an insatiable hunger within him. He serves the bodies at Xmas dinner, stuffing every bit of bone & tendon down his throat, each psychedelic moment rip-roaring then swiftly fleeting. & when there are no more bodies lying in smithereens, Charlie Brown digs up Lucy’s snowy corpse & carries her home where he slides himself in her to keep warm, despairingly consumed with chocolate santas.

 

 


GRANDMA got EATEN BY #ZOMBIEREINDEER ON HER WAY HOME FROM

THE BAR ON XMAS EVE

Grandpa & I are cocking rifles, Santa’s here to plague us all.

Grandma got shit-faced on margs at O’Delles last night, didn’t want to pay for a cab, so she decided to walk home in a blizzard. It was like every other December in the North, her eyes were blinded by whiplashes of icy shards, tongue & lips dried out from the salt. Death was a distinctive taste in her mouth—she had felt it before the only way to cheat it was to vomit & as she expelled lime juice & tequila, every synch of warmth she held, death would not let her. A chariot of blood came plowing down the path pulled by a voracious herd of reindeer, skin liquescent & eyes paled. One sight & sniff & Grandma was being violently eaten by the reindeer, gnashing & gnarling over her floral gown, Santa bellowing a cold hard laugh.

Grandpa & I are wearing black & cocking our rifles. We’ve boarded up the cabin & we’re ready to war, Grandma’s pie covered in corpse flies at the windowsill. A football game roars in the background, the players are eating each other on the field—the referee calls a penalty for the home team. The channel turns to an emergency broadcast, but the newscasters are eating each other on screen. The radio hums through static—the voice on the other end, gargling madly. Grandpa hands me more bullets & nails. He’s going out to look for Grandma.

Grandpa returns with her, bungee cords wrapping throat, fishing pole pulling her behind. I’m not about to celebrate Xmas with the dead. I put my rifle to my shoulder & take a shot, missing her by an inch. Grandpa yells STAAAHHHPPP, but I take another shot & break the fishing pole. Her mouth collides with Grandpa’s throat & blood splatters the snow. I take a third shot & pop her blank in the forehead. Grandma falls beside Grandpa, slowly dying in his own gurgles of blood—

[a picture of two morbid snow angels on a greeting card.]

Merry Zmas & have a Happy End of the World.


#UNDERTHEMISTLETOE: A CHEMICAL WARFARE

The Earth is turning on us. She no longer wants human inhabitants—we are the cruelest. We tear down, we dig up, & bury the secrets of our resource & burn it all to hell. We endanger other species, we murder each other over & over again, a man-made cycle of death. We are no longer the natural order of things, no longer dwelling in this organic illusion. Mother Nature is out for revenge. She has grown chemical fangs & we gave them to her. In holiday spirit, she mixes blood with mistletoe creating a deadly swirl of toxic breath. Mother Nature is releasing her own apocalypse, her own deadly narcosis, expelling her own dramatic disease. This is how we die in the interim. One by one, slowly picked off like the lives on the ground we step on. As we kiss each other under doorways, hallway arches, beside the epic Xmas trees—she spreads her antibodies. This Xmas, we will die with the roses & fall with the bees. This Xmas, our Earth will mourn with us. This Xmas, we will re-discover lost hope in the violence of trees. We will open our throats to the moon, we will polish our ground in mourning.


About the Author: Courtney Leigh is the author of “the unrequited <3<3 of red riding hood & her lycan lover (Dancing Girl Press, 2016)”. Her work has most recently appear in Rogue Agent & Gone Lawn, & is forthcoming in Bird Pile. She resides in Arizona & is The Bowhunter of White Stag Publishing.

Artwork: Sean McCollum

How Much Do You Tip by Sean McCollum

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I stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly cornfields, the barns with their hex signs. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and my folks and I were headed out to pick out a Christmas tree. Feliz Navidad blared into my ear from the stereo speaker directly behind my head.

“Anything you want to do tomorrow?” my mother asked from the front seat.

“I can barely hear you,” I yelled. She turned the music down slightly and twisted around to face me.

“You haven’t changed your mind about seeing your grandmother before you fly back, have you?”

“I told you, there’s no point. She’ll just prattle on complaining about her health and the Puerto Ricans like I’m not even there.”

“She’d be happy to see you.”

Don, my stepfather, stared straight ahead, tailgating every car into pulling over to let him pass.

The gravel parking lot of Unangst Tree Farm was nearly full. Screaming children ran around everywhere. My stepfather muttered to himself as he circled the lot, finally screeching into a spot and leaping out of the car as if it was about to burst into flame. My mother and I hurried to catch up with him as he marched directly toward the section of Douglas Firs. He pointed to the third one in the row and looked at my mother.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Spin it around,” my mother said. I took it and turned it slowly around, my hands instantly covered in sap. She looked at it critically, then nodded. “Looks good. Stay here and guard it while we go pay.”

Back at home, she put on the radio while we strung the lights. I counted six versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside within an hour.

“This song creeps me out,” I said.

“It’s not my favorite,” she admitted.

“Where’s Don?” I asked. “I thought he was going to help.”

“Oh look, my mother made these for me last year,” she said, holding up a pair of leering wooden Santas with feathers for beards.

“Good God.”

“I know. They’re supposed to be earrings I think. I should just throw them out.”

She handed me one and we hung them both around the back of the tree, facing the wall.

*

After dinner I got a call from Sarah, whom I’d known for years but never been close to, though I’d always had kind of a crush on her. She’d told me to look her up when I was back in town. I’d left a few messages for her when I’d arrived, but she hadn’t gotten back to me until now.

“You busy?” she asked.

“Just finished trimming the tree with the family.”

“Great, we’ll come pick you up.”

An hour later the car pulled up and I climbed in to the back seat. A stocky man with glasses and a crew cut was driving.

“Hey buddy, long time no see,” Sarah said. She jerked her thumb at the driver. “This is my buddy Gabe.”

“Hi, Gabe,” I said. Gabe said nothing. A sign on the back of the passenger seat read “Hi, I’m Gabe, thanks for choosing me as your Uber driver. Help yourself to bottled water from the cooler, and let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make your ride a pleasant one!”

“So where we going?” I asked.

“Strip club,” she said.

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be fun,” she said, patting my knee from the front seat.

I opened the lid of the cooler. It was empty.

*

“Eight dollar cover for a Monday night?” I muttered. “This better be good.”

“It will be,” Sarah said. “That is if I don’t get kicked out again.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry, it was a long time ago. They won’t remember me. Probably.”

I watched her from behind as we stood in line. Even in a baggy shirt and jeans she looked good. I forked over my eight bucks and looked up at the purple neon sign. “I think my dad used to come here when we were kids.”

“I think everyone’s dad used to come here when they were kids.”

Gabe bought beers for Sarah and himself and they both walked off, leaving me to fend for myself. The only whiskey they had was Jim Beam, so I ordered one and followed them to the rail. There were a few scattered people in the place, mostly guys with dates. A young woman was onstage in a black leotard, strutting to the techno music. A man’s voice started yelling something over the PA system and the woman snatched up the few bills lying around and vanished into the darkness. Another woman appeared in her place and started twirling lazily around one of the poles. She didn’t come anywhere near us or look in our direction.

“Aren’t they supposed to take their clothes off?” I asked. Sarah shrugged and took a slug of her beer. Two dancers had approached Gabe and were laughing at everything he said. I looked at Sarah. She was staring straight ahead with those huge, beautiful eyes that always looked a little sad, though right now they seemed more bored and unfocused.

“So what have you been up to since last year?” I asked.

“Well, my back’s fucked up so I’ve been out of work since June,” she said. “I go in for surgery after Christmas.”

“Shit, that sucks. You scared?”

She shrugged again. “I’m planning on developing a good painkiller habit.”

A new dancer got on stage. This one actually approached us, smiling. Sarah leaped up and shoved a few dollars down her top. The woman thanked her and looked at me expectantly. On her thigh was a tattoo of an old fashioned sewing machine.

“Nice sewing machine,” I said.

“You’re the first person to ever notice that,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised. I tucked a dollar into her panties and she blew me a kiss and shimmied off, once again without removing a single item of clothing.

“Where’s the men’s room?” I asked Sarah. She pointed to a glowing doorway way in the back of the room. I wove between the tables and ducked inside. By the door was a man wearing a red waistcoat and Santa hat. A small table was covered with mints and lotions and cologne samples. A glass fishbowl was stuffed with bills. Shit, I thought. Do I really have to tip this guy? Will he be pissed if I don’t? How much are you supposed to tip? I felt awkward just having him in the same room as me, and it took me a while to go. Finally I shook off and zipped up and before I could make it to the sink the man rushed over and squeezed a blob of soap into my hands from a dispenser. When I was done washing he handed me a paper towel.

“Thanks Santa,” I said, and dropped a dollar into the bowl.

“Thank you and a very merry Christmas to you, Sir,” he said.

I grabbed another drink on the way back. The woman with the sewing machine tattoo was chatting up Gabe. “He’s going save her,” Sarah said. “Just watch.” She took a long swig and leaned closer. “He wants to fuck me but he never will.”

“Well, there they go,” I said, as the dancer led him off into a back room somewhere.

“Told you,” she said. “God I’m tired.”

“Me too.” I wondered how much a cab ride back to my mother’s house would cost. We sat there in silence for a while. I couldn’t help but notice that Sarah was prettier than any of the women working at this place.

“You still talk to any of the old gang?” I asked to fill the void.

“Eh, they’re all pieces of shit. Except Troy. God I loved that guy. He’s married but he still calls me when he’s all coked up.”

“I know, everyone’s married at this point. Me, I can’t even get a coffee date. Just wait, you hit your forties and you turn completely invisible to the opposite sex.”

“Maybe you’re secretly afraid of commitment? Women can pick up on that stuff you know.”

“No… I mean, sure, I used to be when I was young. But I think at this point in my life, I’m ready to be with someone. It’s just there’s nobody out there.”

“Huh. Here, look at me.”

I looked at her. Her face was lit blue red blue red by the flashing strobes; it was as if she was standing beside a crime scene. She gently took my face in her hands and kissed me, one long, open-mouthed kiss on the lips. She pulled away and looked into my eyes and nodded, then sank back into her seat and stared straight ahead.

I felt like I had just failed some sort of test.

Just then Gabe and his dancer friend reappeared and he said, “Okay, let’s go.”

We all walked out to his car, where the dancer gave him a long, lingering kiss before heading back inside. Sarah insisted that I ride in the front seat. She sat behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. I took her hand for a moment before she pulled away. When I looked back she was passed out, her mouth open. I tried making small talk with Gabe but he merely grunted and eventually I gave up and stared out the window at the strip malls and fast food places.

*

“Someone had a good time last night,” my mother said with a smile as I shuffled over to the coffee maker. “Want some eggs?”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting heavily down at the kitchen table.

“Any thoughts on what you want to do today?” she asked.

“You know, I was thinking it would be good to go see Grandma. I mean, if you don’t mind driving.”

“Oh honey, of course I don’t mind. I’ll call to tell her we’re coming.”

“You know what, why don’t we let it be a surprise?”

*

I’d only been to the nursing home once before. The place was crammed with wreaths and wooden angels and all kinds of holiday crafts. The couches and loveseats were littered with tiny, frail bodies wrapped in blankets, staring at the televisions. When we got to my grandmother’s door, I hesitated.

“Go on, knock,” my mother said. I knocked.

My grandmother opened the door. Her look of bewilderment changed to recognition and she smiled. “Oh my goodness, would you look at who’s here!”

I bent down to hug her tiny, hunched frame and said, “We came to surprise you!”

Eh? You’ll have to speak up, kiddo, I’m just about deaf. Come in, come in. I’ve been working on the tree for my door.” She held up a jagged triangle of green construction paper. “All you grandkids’ names will go on the lights.” She spoke in a strange squeak, like a cartoon character.

My mother sat down with her on the bed and I sat in a little rocker splotched with magnolias.

“You probably noticed that my voice sounds funny,” she said. “The doctor said my spine is pressing against my voice box and from now on I’m going to sound like this. Ain’t that something?”

“I need to use your ladies’ room, Mom,” my mother said, patting her on her hunched back, and disappeared into the bathroom. My grandmother and I sat there in silence. She had a huge grin on her face. Piles of paper and knickknacks covered every surface of the room. Above the bed hung a tapestry of a lighthouse, its beam shooting out over the choppy waves that exploded against the rocks.

“How much do I tip a men’s room attendant at a strip club?” I suddenly asked her. I’m not really sure why I asked. It just kind of came out.

“What’s that?” she asked, the grin still frozen on her face. Just then the toilet flushed and my mother came back into the room.

“What did I miss?” my mother asked. My grandmother looked up at her, still smiling. My mother sat down and squeezed her shoulders.

“You’re such a good son,” my mother told me later in the car, patting my hand.

“I know,” I said, and stared out the window at the bare trees, the stubbly fields, the barns with their hex signs, stared out at the specks of snow that floated aimlessly through the air, too light to ever touch the ground.


About the Author: Sean McCollum

Artwork: Sean McCollum