In Gotham City, Everyone Has A Batman Story

Millenium Club for B-Side (ERIN KIRKLAND/Daily)

“I’m serious!” Robbie spread his hands wide as he said it, slowly, so as to not spill his fourth beer for the night.

The other two were laughing. Their fourth and fifth beers, respectively, helped to make the laughs a little more loud and freely given. Both the laughs and the alcohol helped with their ruddy glow and the flow of stories.    

“‘Going somewhere, citizen?'” Neil laughed, repeating Robbie’s punchline.

“No way, man! He did *not* say that,” Kevin could barely sit upright.

Robbie took another sip. He was almost done with this glass and probably should leave a bit at the bottom for a while “Hey, it’s Gotham City. Everyone has a Batman story. You mean to tell me you guys don’t have a Batman story?”

The laughter trailed off just a bit, so eyes could narrow and search for memory. Kevin kept on chuckling, “No, man. No.” Softly, as if he was a bit ashamed by that and didn’t want the others to notice.

Neil remembered, though, and was ready. Setting a now-empty glass on the bar top, he got off the stool, slowly, raising his hands and taking the stage. “Huh, a ‘Batman story.’ Well, it’s not a ‘Batman story,’ exactly, I guess. But, damn. Just … damn.    

“OK, you see, I was really into the guy when I was a kid. I think everyone was, you know? You’re in Gotham; you gotta root for the home team. It’s a point of pride. Our city may be shit that’s shit out of other shit, but we got the goddamn Batman, you know?”

Kevin and Robbie clinked their glasses together. Damn straight.

“But I mean I was *really* fucking into it. I even made my own cowl-type thing and cape out of a pillowcase. Like you do. Ya gotta cut them just right, you see, along the sides to make it an actual-to-goodness long cape. And I wore the crap out of that, like, *all* the time. Loved it. Well, except I never liked the way the fabric just sorta hung there. That never seemed right to me somehow. I mean, the news or someone will capture a photo every now and then, and you can see the cape, like, flowing. I swear there’s got to be like wires or some shit in there.”

Robbie couldn’t hold out. He drained the last sip and waved for another. After all, Neil was settling in to the story big time by now.

“OK, so, it gets bad. Like so bad. Before long, I’m wearing this cut-up pillowcase-thing under my shirt to school everyday. I’m making this rope-like thing to try to swing across whatever the hell it was that we called a garden. And, ah dammit. I actually stole Ray Fogle’s ninja stars after that one sleepover.”

“Shit!” Kevin pointed his pinky at Neil. “That was you? Fuck, I loved those damn things.” He turned to Robbie, “‘Cause why the hell else would you hang out with Ray the Gay Fogle?”

Neil went on, “Yeah, but I felt so goddamned worried or maybe guilty or whatever that I put them in a cigar box under the bed and never once tried to throw them. Anyway, the whole thing got so bad that I was actually staying up late, for hours, just hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I would lay down, just so, so I could stare out my bedroom window, and see this open space of sky framed by either side of the apartments. I knew the best I could hope for would be some split-second shadow as he leaped from one roof to the other, just a snapshot really, so I dared myself not to blink. But at some point, I would. And then I’d open them and it would suddenly be morning, time for school.

“Well, that wasn’t working, so naturally I started sneaking out at night. I got away with it for a little while, too. Or maybe my folks knew about it all along, and let me do it, as long as it was all still pretty innocent. Hell, it probably wasn’t even prime time, but to me it was like dead of midnight. And this goes on for like, days. Weeks.”

“No way!” Robbie said.          

“And it starts getting later, and later. I swear by this time I’m probably spending more time out of the house at night than I am anywhere else. Until, after all that, who the hell do you think I run into, halfway around the corner, by the dumpster for the liquor store?”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Kevin said, “Batman? You’re kidding.”

Neil leans in, his voice low and even. “It’s fucking Batman.”

The other guys pause, unsure. Then reel backward, laughing. “What!” and “Stop dickin’ around.”

Neil joins the laughs, but his are quiet ones, more sobering. “Yeah, yeah. I’m shitting you. Of course it’s my *dad,* in some pretty cool ass costume I have to say, because, damn. Little-kid-me was convinced that ‘Batman’ had caught me sneaking around my block. He gave me some speech about doing the right thing and staying safe and what the fuck ever. It was all I could do to stop pissing myself because I had *Batman* escorting me back home. Finally, we’re there, and I don’t want to go up those lobby steps. I turn and look back. He gives me one of those finger-pointing things, with his head cocked and one eye squinted, and says in the most cheesy-ass ways possible, ‘Be good, son!’ And then? Ducks and runs.”

Neil stopped the story and turned to the bar and his beer glass, waving so the bartender could see it was empty. Kevin and Robbie were laughing hard now– Robbie not sure whether to dry his eyes or give a slow clap, Kevin not sure whether to use Robbie to hold himself up or to keep slowly punching him in the arm.

Neil let the laughter go on for a while. The story needed some of it. Hell, Neil needed some of it, but could only reach the level of a wry smile.

“Damn!” Robbie kept chuckling. “Damn. Your dad was awesome. Who the hell wears a bat costume in Gotham City?”

“Exactly,” Neil was deadpan now. He received his drink as the laughter died to silence.

“You mean,” Robbie asked. Kevin looked down.

Neil raised a toast. “‘Be good, son.’ You can’t pick your last words better than that.”

A sip.

“Everyone has a Batman story in this city. Can’t all be good ones, though.”

The three friends clinked their glasses one more time, then settled in to wait a while for the time the stories could start flowing again.

by Danny Wall (March 2015) 


A Chinese New Year’s Story

Once upon a time, in a far away place, a small village lived in the shadow of a giant mountain. An even greater shadow loomed over them, however– the threat of the monster whose name mimicked the high, shrill wailing it made during the coldest of the winter nights — the dreaded Nian.

As the winter bore on, and the nights grew ever longer, the sound of the wailing Nian grew more and more intense, more plaintive, more piercing. Soon, it would not be able to help itself. It would descend upon the village in the height of winter darkness, smashing doors, swatting aside men, and swallowing their small tender children. And thus the villagers lived in fear for the day of the lunar new year.

One day, a traveling monk happened upon the village. He was wrapped in silk and fur to fight back the sudden cold of the mountain shadow, and wondered why the townspeople had such downcast looks and sidelong glances from behind their window panes. Old Zu, Hongjun Laozu to be precise, was in search for the Gate of All Wonders, but that is a story for another time. Instead, tonight, he just wanted a place to sleep and eat. So why were the people putting large bundles of food in front of their doorways? After traveling for such a long while, he had put his hopes in hospitality.

A local farmer told Old Zu that the people tried to hold the Nian at bay by distracting it with such food laid at the door. But night after night, the Nian would swallow up some offering and leave the people one step closer to starving and helpless.

That’s when the Nian’s cry lanced through the mountain twilight and bit into the people’s hearts.

Just like winter itself, Zu noted, which sups on our strength with its biting cold, until year by year, winter by winter, we weather away, children gobbled up by time.       

Hmm. Yes, well, the farmer had hoped for more encouragement than that. Maybe one of those warrior monks could wander by, instead of these philosophical scholar types? Old Zu nevertheless swore determinately see this beast for himself.

Under the light of the waxing moon, Old Zu struggled up a ragged stretch of cliff, with nothing more than a ration of water and his tall staff. But as he found a place to allow for a rest and a long sip of water, the darkness before him suddenly withdrew to reveal an even darker void, as if the night itself would shy away from the great beast that moved within– the Nian had appeared.

It’s massive frame was like a grotesque bull’s, it’s wide head a nightmarish lion. Two baleful eyes, fish-like and clouded, rolled toward the old monk, and its jaws popped open and shut, sending waves of rotten stink into him.

“Old man, frail man,” its voice was high-pitched wail of death, “Tonight you warm my belly!”

“Oh, Nian! You are such a powerful beast! But no one can be more powerful than man! I dare you to meet three challenges! If you can indeed overcome each challenge, then I promise, as the weaker creature, I will have no choice. I will submit and fill your belly.”

The Nian produced a squeal that sounded like a scratch against a slate, and bounded forward, forcing Old Zu backward up the cliff a few steps. His baleful head seemed to have no expression, but its head twisted and bounced, excited, like a dying leaf on a vine.

“Oh, Nian! If you are indeed powerful, I dare you to swallow the dangerous snakes of this mountain and survive!”

Indeed, the Nian bounded down the slope and found a deadly snake. The snake hissed with gleaming poison on its fangs, but with a quick gulp, the snake was gobbled up by the Nian’s wide, flat mouth, swallowed whole like wet, fat noodle. Laughing, the Nian leapt upward back to Old Zu, who barely managed to climb down a few steps himself. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

Old Zu extended his staff toward the beast. “Oh, Nian! Your body may be strong enough to survive a poison, but is your brain adept enough to guess my name?”

The Nian’s bouncing head tossed its giant, hair-tipped ears, catching wind of some slight whisper. Indeed, far away and below the people of the village were chanting prayers for Old Zu and his mission, which the monster heard as plain as day over the stretches of miles. Roaring in triumph, the Nian jumped ever closer again. “Hongjun Laozu!” and again it’s high-pitched voice pierced the night. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

The man scrambled back up the cliff just a little bit more. “Oh, Nian! Powerful by far! And I have dropped my prayer beads somewhere on the mountain in my haste to meet you. They are the color of fresh-tilled earth, and polished to darkness from countless mediations. I dare you to find them among the dust and dirt of the ground!”

But indeed, the Nian danced and tossed its body through the night of the wilds, sending whirls of fecund leaves swirling through the air. WIth his powerful wide nose, the Nian easily sniffed out that which didn’t belong in the underbrush, the monk’s string of beads! With a toss of a mighty paw, the beads were kicked unceremoniously at Old Zu’s feet. The Nian galloped back in just five sweeping strides, to lord over Old Zu with a whining shriek that must have been laughter. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”   

The monk sighed. “Oh, Nian! Such powerful ears, such powerful body, and such powerful nose! What creature could ever hope to overcome your strengths! We humans must have no choice, then! If I must warm your belly, please allow me to strip bare, as a clean gulp would go better for me than a long and laborious chew.”

First, Old Zu took off his white outer robe, folding it and putting it on the ground. The Nian grumbled low.     

Next, Old Zu took off his reed-woven sandals, placing them together beside the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground,

Next, Old Zu took off his orange silk tunic, folding it too and placing it on top of the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground, it’s anticipation flying off of him and hitting Old Zu  like wind off a newly dug grave.     

Finally, Old Zu took off his tan pants, revealing red underpants beneath.

At the sight of the red underpants, the fish-like eyes of the Nian rolled back in horror, and his whole body nearly twisted to follow, recoiling from the brightness of the color.

With a pointed scream that nearly split the rocks nearby, the Nian send all his breath out in lament. “Old man, old man! Old man, with my most hated color!”

“Ah-ha!” Old Zu laughed, proud of his red underwear. “I knew it! This is why the Nian must swallow the babies and old men he eats! There can be no blood nor sight of red! You are surely the most pitiful and toothless creature of all!”

The Nian did not wait until the end of Old Zu’s gloating. Blinking and balking, choking and gasping on the sight of pure red, the beast receded into the darkness.

In his excitement, Old Zu didn’t realize he leapt, danced, and sang his way back to the village, still clad only in his underwear!

As Old Zu exclaimed, every year you must remember the Nian.

Remember his belly, and on the coldest night, beware that he will come, seeking people to swallow whole!

Remember his ears and nose, and in the coldest hour on the coldest night, light firecrackers to create explosions of sound and smoke!

And Remember his eyes! And every day hang lantern of red in the streets and banners of red on your doors!

And remember Old Zu, saving the town with his bravery, wisdom, and silly, lucky underwear!     

Story by Danny Wall, adapted from Chinese legends

Upside-Down Obo


Little Otto Bob O’Reiniero was a boy with the curious habit of turning things upside down.

Everyone called him Li’l Obo, of course, ever since he was a little baby. They would laugh at the babe’s single-minded fascination with the way his toy clown, weighed down at bottom, would right itself after every attempt to topple it. Later, he would upturn his toy cars, bury the faces of every block, and upend every book in the bookcase so their titles were facing downward. Everyone stopped laughing, of course, once Li’l Obo started spilling the contents of boxes all over the carpet, the planter mix going everywhere, the dog’s food staining the floor.       

He spent long afternoons on his head, leaning against the tree in the front yard with his feet in the air. When people asked him why he was standing on his head, he just replied that he wanted to see what things looked like with the sky on the bottom and the ground at the top, and they would chuckle and shake their heads. Looking upward at their nostrils and undersides of their chins, they seemed strangely grotesque and fascinating to Obo, but he said nothing. Soon they’d walk away, and eventually his head would feel too rushed to keep that position for long, anyway.

Obo grew up to be quite the expert and turning things upside down, although it made it hard for him to set the table, seeing as how the surface was laid against the floor, and the plates and cups and things overturned on the underside. His parents gave up asking him to take the garbage out quite quickly, and although his room was always neat and tidy, the clock read nine, or rather six, when it was noon and his posters featured jet planes racing toward the earth and basketball players in mid-slam drop.     

Usually in these kinds of stories, the hero always manages to find a way to use his special talent in order to save the day, after all the other and more conventional solutions fail to work. Sure, there were little moments of Win, such as the time grown-up Obo saved the company millions by pointing out a key loophole in the ledger because he read the financials upside-down, or the time he invented the Flipped Cupcake and saved the so-called “Bakery Bubble” from an investment collapse. He even flew to Australia and wrote the definitive long-term intensive study on the lives of giant fruit bats. But despite all of this, Obo managed to invert the typical story as success was still denied him, and people dismissed him as, at best, a ineffective eccentric, or worse, completely neurotic.

And so Obo lived the rest of his days alone in an upside-down house, balanced perfectly on its vaulted roof, an architectural wonder of his own design. He entertained visitors occasionally, those who found his quirks charming and could challenge him in a game of Reversi.

It might be the opposite of what you would choose, but it makes Obo very happy, which is still a very nice moral to the story, if you think about it.

Room 616, Hellcircle High School


“Virgil, are you sure this is the First Circle? I thought we were descending into Hell?”

“This is actually a shortcut. This hallway intersects pretty much all the Circles, and even Real Life. It’s quite accessible, in fact. Most people find themselves in here at some point in their lives without ever noticing it.”

“It looks like a high school hallway,” Dante said, observing the hand-painted banner with thick tempura block letters announcing the upcoming Halloween-o-Grams sale.

“Exactly.” Virgil looked into room 616 and saw the gaunt faces of withdrawn, disengaged Sophomores. “Poor motherfuckers. Pardon my Italian.”

Virgil opened the door and motioned for Dante to follow. They could cut their journey even more short by crossing the room through the far door, where some student work still haunted the faded blue bulletin board, mournfully displaying a study unit that no one would remember.

As Dante and his guide passed rows of students sitting dutifully, if a bit lackadaisical, at their desks, one of the living dead students raised his hand. Without really looking directly at Dante, he asked, “Do we really have to do this?”

“Uhm, yes?” Dante guessed.

“UGH!” the student raised his chest with the whine, in order to dramatically flop forward over his desk. Rolling over to his left, he remained laying prone on his arm while still trying to make marks on the worksheet with a pencil with his right.

Dante glanced over at Virgil, who waved a hand to give Dante some silent permission to continue. Dante then took the worksheet away from the student, who sighed again, then sat back up. His pencil continued to work as if writing automatically, but with nothing else to scribble on but the desktop, it began to make an edgy, chickenscratch representation of a penis.

Looking over the worksheet, it seemed to just require some basic repetition. “Well,” Dante said, “why don’t you just tell me the answers out loud, instead. If you finish your busy work, you can be excused, right?”

“Fine, whatever.”

Dante considered the paper before him. “Okay. Uh, ‘Emperor Justinian displayed a virtue of ambition but failed to also display the virtue of’ … what?”

The student blew a sigh through pursed lips, attempted a thought, and looked suddenly as if he were pricked by a needle. “Ah,” he trailed off, then quickly said, as if it were one word, “I dunno.”

Virgil shrugged, indicating it was just as expected. Dante was incredulous. “Well, it’s obvious he does know. It just might take him a bit of time to answer.”

“It’s time no one wants to spend,” Virgil said. “Much easier to just say ‘I dunno.'”

The student rolled his head to the side, his neck clearly deficient from centuries of desk-made posture. “Ugh. Just tell me. I say ‘I dunno’ and you tell me.” Then he added, as if to assure Dante and make everything okay: “I’ll write it down.”

“So you just want to fill out this worksheet?” Dante handed it back.

“It’s fine, whatever. I’ll even wait until a few minutes before it’s due and still turn it in on time, okay?”

“Well, it would be better if you actually learn it.”

“How am I supposed to get points that way?”

Virgil motioned to Dante; it was a lost soul. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”

“Can’t we take them with us? There’s nothing really keeping them here, right?”

“Nothing substantial. It’s more one of those ‘hell-of-your-own-making’ kind of things.”

Dante lowered himself to look at the student. “Come with us. Do you really need to finish this?”

The student blinked, but did manage to look at Dante for the first time. “Is this not going to be on the test?”

Dante considered, “Well, maybe. But also maybe one test won’t matter. As long as you’re learning stuff, I mean.”

The student looked pained once again. “Ooh, I don’t know. I’m getting a 94 percent right now. So a test would be pretty important.”

Dante stood back up. “Oh my God,” he said, but Virgil shushed that kind of talk.

The student took up the worksheet again, laying his head back on his left arm as usual. “I have to do good. I’m a good person. I need to get a good job someday.”

Dante threw his hands out. “Those things aren’t even related! I mean … any of those things!”

Virgil had to put his arms around Dante and try to lead him to the door. “Some people get it; some people never leave here.” Then he observed, “Beyond ourselves we hope our meaning be laid / But what be meaning without weight or grade?”

“Where is the teacher?” Dante realized.

“Oh, there’s a whole ‘nother circle for them. Right near Sisyphus. Come on, I’ll show you.”

“Wait! How much is this worth?!” the student cried out, as Virgil and Dante slipped out the door.

Wednesday’s Lament


The days of the week sat in a circle. It was yet another meeting but not all that much seemed to have changed since last time. The room was the same slightly musky basement-level multi-purpose space, the one with rows that plastic-covered fluorescent tubes tried their best to buzz light into, and the bulletin boards held way too many flyers and ratty old notices if anyone bothered to read them anymore.  The long folding table at the back was way too big to hold the deli platter brought by Thursday, next to the napkins and paper cups and droning monotone of the water cooler.

Saturday was bouncing slightly to some unseen tune as he perused the offering of deli meats and cheese wedges, until Monday finally had to say something to call everyone’s attention.

“Look, we might as well get started,” he tried not to move too much to make his folding chair squeak.

“Don’t we have a holiday?” Saturday asked, his napkin loaded down with only slightly more meats than necessary. “I thought we were going to skip this meeting.”

“It’s always a holiday for you, I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Wednesday said. “Do you know how long I have to wait for a holiday?”

Tuesday and Thursday, seated side by side as always, nodded in unison to each other.

“Oh-kay, *Whines*-day,” Saturday rolled his eyes. Friday laughed at the joke, suddenly and hard, looking among the group for commiseration, especially with Saturday. Saturday pursed his lips, just to acknowledge Friday’s attempt at being him, but sunk into his chair. Sunday looked up suddenly as if wondering if he should have been paying attention.

“See?” Wednesday said, “This is what we were talking about before, about respect?” Then, taking inspiration from a new thought, he shot his hand in the air, “You know what? New business. I move to add to the agenda.”

Saturday groaned the loudest, through the murmur of small protests.     

“What is it this time?” Monday asked. His natural professionalism nearly cracked, and remained strained, at best.

“Rearrange the schedule,” Wednesday said. “Move me between Saturday and Sunday.” This led to a new round of protests, much more vocal this time. Except from Tuesday and Thursday. They exchanged a look that held a small thrill, and brought their hands together.

“Well, that’s simply not going to work,” Monday sat back in his chair. He had given up on the clipboard he had brought.

“No, really,” Wednesday went on, “Think about it. I’m already in the middle of the week. Now, I’d just be in the middle of the weekend!”

Friday was blown away. Saturday, however, was indignant. “So, what, there’s like three days in a weekend then? Are you trying to be a weekend, now?”

“Well, I don’t know.”

“I don’t think you could handle that. You are clearly not weekend material.”

Sunday too a deep breath in order to sigh “I really don’t want to be after him.”

“I could be a weekend,” Wednesday said, but his voice had weakened a lot from his initial passion.

Friday still grasped at the concept, pointing at Saturday. “Then *you* would be like *me* for *you.*”

“Oh my god,” Saturday nearly flailed for dramatic flair. “Wednesday you’re so got to get ahold of yourself. The weekends are already set.”

“Get a hold of myself? You don’t even know. Everyone *likes* you. Everyone’s cool with Saturday. Saturday’s *fun,* Whoo-hoo. Saturday. When people think of *me,* they groan and sigh and say stuff like ‘Oh, it’s only *Wednesday,* and call me Hump Day. They just can’t wait to get rid of me.”

“People thank *God* for me,” Friday whispered to Sunday. “Ha!” Sunday nearly snorted. “I *am* the Lord’s day.”

Monday picked up after Wednesday’s rant. “Oh, it’s so hard to be you. Did you ever consider *my* situation? Do you honestly know what it’s like to *follow* after those guys? And you think you have it bad. Who do you think is the only truly hated one here? Honestly, the one people truly hate?” Monday raised his hand to answer his own question.

“At least you can join them more often than not. What is a three-day weekend without Monday?”

“Ooh, I love three-days,” Friday chimed in.

“Fine,” Monday threw his hands up. “Let’s just upend our whole schedule just so you can feel like people like you a bit better. Who’s next? Friday, you want to start us off? Sunday, you want to switch with Tuesday, instead? Hell, let’s just get rid of Thursday altogether!”

Tuesday and Thursday gasped and reached out to one another.

“Oh, please,” Monday continued. “It’s not like you really do anything on your own anyway. It’s always Tuesday AND Thursday, isn’t it?”

Thursday demurred, sinking into himself.

“Friends, friends,” Sunday rose slowly, reaching out. “You guys are failing to realize how important Wednesday really is. We need a balance. Two weekdays on either side of you, with one weekend day at the end of the week and another weekend day on the other. Only Wednesday in the middle.” Sunday put his palms together in front of his lips. “Symmetry.”     

Sunday added in the quiet space, “Be Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Wednesday said after a moment, in a tone that wasn’t. “You guys are impossible.”

Saturday laughed. “Bro, I gotta introduce you to February. You’re going to love that guy.”

A Coffee For Your Thoughts


“Oof!” the lady couldn’t help but exhale as her body fell into the booth.

It was one of those long booths that ran the length of the wall of the coffee shop. The man was half-way down, but that only meant he was maybe two seats away from her, on the same side. His once-piping hot Americano still occupied a quarter of the paper cup in front of him. It had tasted good, of course, or as good as could be expected for overroasted, overpressed espresso and tap water. It was his habit, you see, to not to finish it. That quarter cup was the only thing allowing him to stay seated for a couple of hours.

There was once another fellow occupant of this line of booth, on the far side from where the lady just sat. The only artifacts of this lost occupant were an empty cup, a dangling tea bag flapping like a white flag, and three lonely napkins, unused except for having served their purpose as some token acknowledgement that *something* besides a cup of tea should be taken to the table.

The man frowned. He had wondered at the time if he should have slid all the way over once that seat was vacant, but he had sat in the middle, and such decisions always had such a finality about them, no matter how random their beginning. Now the comfort of old decisions meant the lady had no choice but to sit in a place just a little too close for normalcy.

Not that normalcy seemed too much of a concern for her. Her older, somewhat ample frame was draped by a flowing blouse with bold swatches of color, a close-up of technicolor giraffe. Her jewelry was equally as bold and generously round, with wide hoops for earrings, of course. Her hair was still desperately trying to be blonde rather than white, and curly rather than frizzy. Her eyes would certainly be bold enough on their own, but the heavy makeup made a point of reaching out to the world ahead of them.

Her coffee was the smallest available, still labeled as regular, of course, and loaded up with whipped cream and caramel sauce that had become the new definition of “coffee.” Her bag was also larger than necessary, but all of this seemed appropriate for a woman who was likely more comfortable with excess.

She protruded a thin, badly reddened smile toward the man in gratuitous hello, as if they would be in on a great secret, just for the two of them. The man’s smile was a bit more wan. His eyes, considerably more deadened, rolling as he did so. His only thought was “Crap.”

“Crappity-crap-crap,” he thought. “This lady’s going to want to talk to me, isn’t she? Can’t someone go to a public place any more in private?”

He tried to turn his attention to his Economist magazine. He liked to stare at the long columns of words and think about nothing, but he noticed her out of the corner of his eyes reaching into her bag and producing yet another,

like some weird Russian nesting doll or some new show called Housewife Magic.

She set the second bag on the table, then proceeded to set the table around her coffee with a bottle of water, a well-worn Dan Brown novel, earphones with no music player, and, naturally, some token napkins. There also was yet another bag, this one a flimsy white plastic shopping bag.

The lady caught the man staring at her cornucopia of cafe survival essentials then, impossibly, widened her eyes even more. She was indeed sharing a secret with the man, and opened the bag to reveal the sushi she had bought at the grocery store and smuggled inside. She flashed a “shush” with her forefinger in front of a blown kiss.

The man’s eyes said “whatever!” silently. And he snapped his magazine to attention.

The woman looked ahead, too, but leaned slightly to the left, toward the man. Clearly, he would be included in the conversation regardless of his silent protests.   

“It’s made with brown rice. Really,” she made the implicit conversation more explicit. “And a bit of hummus, cucumber and red pepper, feta. Greek Sushi, can you believe it? I just *had* to try it of course.”     

He forced his eyebrows to raise for a beat.

“I had a friend from work who was from Japan, you know. He brought some sushi for an office party one time? From the grocery store. I mean I *know* people don’t eat it for like every meal or something, or whatever he said, but I just thought it was kind of funny, you know?” She turned to look fully at that man, just to make sure she was clear for her next point: “Well, not *funny*-funny, I mean. You know.

“Anyway, I just say that because I know this has to be kind of wrong. I see a *lot* of cooking shows, though, and fusion is like *the* thing. I don’t think you can really be any kind of chef nowadays and not do something fusion.”

The man wondered why conversation had to happen to him, of all people. Maybe there was something about his face. If so, there would be something kind of hopelessly sad about that.

By this time, the woman had busied herself enough to open a sachet of aoli, herb and wasabi dressing for dipping. “Oh my,” she said. “This looks so healthy! Isn’t it weird that something can look healthy? I guess we can say that something looks ‘delicious,’ but you’re really just mixing up your senses, right?       

“I try to eat healthy as much as I can, you know. Not that I started as young as I should have, but what can you do? Everything’s so importantly healthy, or maybe healthfully important, or whatever. It’s too hard to escape it.”

By this time, she managed to pop one of the one-inch oil-dipped faux-sushi rolls into her mouth. She chewed for just a few split seconds then flashed the man a surprised smile, hiding her lips like she needed to cover a quick chuckle. “Oh my gosh! It’s so *good!” she confided.

“It’s hard to think about food as food anymore, right? Just some weird combination of natural flavors with a bunch of vitamins and fibers and what not. It’s like you’re not making decisions about food on a daily basis, but about medicine.”

The man wondered if anyone else would be coming to this section of the cafe.

She went on, the bites of sushi doing little to stem the rising stream of consciousness. “I remember when French cooking was all the rage. Eggs, cream, beurre blancs… And pastries, naturally. God! What was food supposed to be then?” She leaned to the side again, answering her own question, “Cuisine as pleasure.”       

She didn’t want to raise a sushi piece too high for the barista to see, but held it firmly as an example in the shadow of the plastic bag. “And this was supposed to be something elegant, right? Japanese food is so carefully presented– crafted, really. I mean, this is tasty,” she said as it too got popped into her wide maw, “but some people dedicate their whole lives to this kind of thing. Like art really.  Food as aesthetic.”

“But hey, this had whole grain brown rice, and it’s all organic, too. My package told me it’s the best combination of cancer-fighting vitamins and low-fat, gluten-free, all-natural superfoods. You’d almost think it was farmed locally and all artisan, too.”     

The man ruefully looked at the cooled coffee on the table in front of him. He thought it was Fair Trade, but wasn’t really paying attention at the register and really didn’t want to say anything about it anyway.

“If you haven’t been to the farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoons, you really *should.* And I’m not saying that because it’s the trendy thing or something. I really think you should. Whether it’s pastries or sushi or artisanny stuff up the wallapazoo you’ll find it there. Ohmygod I *love* the chilaquiles they have.”

He had to stop himself from asking what chilaquiles were.

“I guess what food really is,” she said, putting away the plastic, like she was trying to hide comic book from her Science teacher. “It’s a community. People at that market aren’t just giving you a piece of their wares, their giving  you a piece of their world. And the place in the home that everyone gathers? The kitchen. It’s something that really binds us all, you know, food.”

She raised her whipped cream with coffee underbelly as a kind of cheers to welcome the man once more into her philosophy.

The man stuck out his lower lip and bulged his eyes slightly. Without a word, he threw back his quarter cup of coffee like a shot, for courage. He lifted his weight off the seat and exited, an empty cup a signal of his disagreement, or at least the punctuation to the end of the conversation.

Oblivious to the significance, the woman held her own cup with both hands and smiled as she regarded the whirls of cream before her.

“After All”


What is the speed of thought?

How much stuff can run through a brain in any given split-second? Say, for instance, in the space of the glance that Jason Kane chanced to give Husky? That moment was small, less than the glitch you’d see if it were some video that skipped a frame, the same moment Jason’s hand was about to grip the doorknob on his way out of Penny.’s apartment.

With just a dart of the eyes, the dog was seen and was also seen as more than just “dog.” Husky, in his wolf-like frame and mismatched eyes, was also the pride and joy of Penny. The reason for the compliment when Jason first met her. The companion on his morning jogs once he moved in, the source of warmth on cold New York winters during movie night at home.

A pain in the ass because he was always so rude to everyone, barking even at the neighbors, but never to Jason.

“That’s because you’re so much alike,” Penny would say.

“Wait. ‘A pain in the ass?'”

Penny would just smirk and shrug. Husky would pant and bark approvingly.

Once, Jason was staring out the sliding glass door to the balcony. He tapped the handle of the door, and his feet bounced restlessly, too. The kind of rapid leg movement you might see from a teenager in the middle of math class. Penny laughed at him and asked if he needed to go outside for a walk.

Not too long after that, Penny caught Jason in a more melancholy mood. He was resting his head in her lap as she sat on the end of the couch near the end table. ESPN was on but he wasn’t really watching it. She was more engrossed in her reading of something from Paul Auster. For some reason, it allowed them to talk about books.

Jason remembered the one story he really liked as a kid. It was one about a boy who lived in a small towns in some rural mountain area. One day, he took in a wounded owl, a baby that was still this wild thing but needed care. So he did care for it, loved it, and had a variety of adventures with it appropriate for any such fifth grade-level novel. And of course, came that ending. The one where the owl finally left. Despite the love and the life he shared with the boy, it was just … an owl after all.

Penny put down the book and turned her full attention to Jason’s head, continuing to brushing back his hair lightly. He still looked at the brightly flashing moveable type swirling over the figures scrambling on the field, and still wasn’t really paying attention.

“That story really resonated with me somehow. One of those you really like because it’s so cool but you also really hate because you can’t get it out of your head. I guess the best praise I could give it was that, at the time, I really wanted to be like those in the story. Who wouldn’t want to own a wild owl, you know?”

Husky barked, and both laughed.

Husky barked again, and Jason took a second glance as his hand reached the doorknob. With his other hand, he shifted the duffel bag strap to adjust the heavy weight.

“Sorry, boy,” Jason told the dog. “I just realized. That story with the boy and the owl? It really affected me more than I ever thought. Now that I think about it, I *did* become like those in the story. Over and over again. But the thing is, turns out, I’m actually the owl.”

With time for another heartbeat or two of infinite thoughts, Jason finally broke his pause, turned the knob, and walked out the door.