Winter

February 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

A clock trapped under ice Winter, the dead of…

Dear Glen

Sorry this card is late. It has been so cold here that on Friday afternoon Time itself froze, solid. When we finally got the old girl defrosted it was already Tuesday, you’re birthday, and this card was still not posted.

The circumstance was as surreal as the times that winter forced us on our backs to worm beneath the old house where copper pipes ran like bluish patina blood vessels in the frigid narrows of the crawl space.

A ceiling of raw oak floorboards
A floor of bare earth
Stalagmites of rat dung rising
Rusted nail stalactites looming

We pushed our bodies through the depths like some yet undiscovered subterranean species, vulnerable at all times to attack by wild creatures nesting in dark recesses.

With the warm air from the lungs of hair dryers connected to long umbilical cords of electricity we thawed the crystals of ice that clogged the water lines and emerged stiff and cold from the underworld with just enough time to eat breakfast before the school bus arrived.

Many happy returns

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Autumn

October 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

maple-leaf

My touch brings a chill

A golden leaf, she trembles

Our summer is gone

A Pier at the End of Summer

June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

 

pier-painting

As it is now officially sum-sum-summertime I offer a bit of light prose for a lazy afternoon in the hammock or on the beach.

It includes infidelity, descent into madness, heroism, crime and a trip to the seashore to boot.

You can read it all right here or you can download the PDF and print it out for reading offline just in case that summer thunderstorm knocks the power out in your neck of the woods.

Click the link for the file: A-Pier-at-the-End-of-Summer-JohnTruelove

A Pier at the End of Summer

Drake Mathews opened the door to a balcony overlooking mountainous dunes, covered in thick blades of grass and golden sea oats. Beyond the dunes, the beach stretched into the endless waves of the Atlantic. On the horizon, green clouds had massed and the strong breeze that blew through his hair and into his stuffy hotel room smelled of salt and the approaching storm. Drake had not bothered to close the front door when he’d carried in his bags and the squall he created blew it shut with a violent bang. The sudden noise startled him and he jerked around, expecting to find something worse than a darkened foyer. He parted the dense curtains that covered the large picture window and the afternoon sun spilled over the room’s modest furnishings. He had rented an efficiency apartment that came equipped with a refrigerator, sink, stove and a small bar with two stools that served as the kitchenette’s dining table. There was a full-size bed, a heavy looking love seat, and a wobbly coffee table of artificial wood, all facing a television. Below the window, an air conditioner was fitted neatly into the wall, but he preferred the natural air and the ocean noises so he left the unit off.

From the suitcase he’d thrown on the bed, Drake removed a short stack of shirts he planned on hanging up, a toiletry kit, and a Colt .45 handgun, placing the items side by side on the stiff mattress. The duvet and pillow shams were dark blue with a seaside print of white shells, fish, sea horses, star fish, and life preserver rings. He laughed to himself when he realized that he had laid the pistol directly on top of a life preserver and he returned it to the suitcase beneath his boxer shorts.

He slid a bottle of bourbon from brown a paper bag and absently tossed the empty, wrinkled sack on the floor. Leaving the bottle on the bar, Drake took what he figured served as the room’s ice bucket and went to find the hotel’s ice machine.

Drake Mathews made the trip from New York to the coast of North Carolina in a little less than ten hours, stopping at intervals only long enough to refuel, buy coffee, and use the bathroom.  Ultimately, he was more interested in leaving the city in the shortest time possible than he was in reaching his destination. He had called the borough of Queens home for over twenty years – until a series of events sent him spiraling into a crisis that caused him to make less-than-pragmatic decisions.

He found the ice maker humming alongside a Pepsi vending machine tucked away in a stifling little room under a stairway. It was a hot, late-summer day and on the west side of the hotel, without the immediate benefit of the coastal breezes, the heat rising form the black asphalt of the parking lot was suffocating. By the time he got back to his room, both he and his ice were sweating profusely. He found a glass in a cabinet above the kitchen sink, filled the bottom with a handful of watery ice, and put the rest in the freezer. He gave himself a good sized pour from the new bottle and took a seat on the balcony, watching tendrils of lightning sizzle in the approaching clouds.

The beach was deserted by the time the first big drops of rain began spotting the sun-baked crust on the top of the sand. Drake went inside and made another drink. The film of water on the ice had refrozen quickly and the cubes were now fused into a solid brick, which Drake chipped at with a fork. A resounding explosion of thunder ripped the air like cannon fire through the walls of a paper castle, and the sheets of rain that followed were so dense they obstructed any view past the first foothills of dunes. Tiny pebbles of hail ricocheted off the window and Drake propped himself up on the bed to watch the storm through the rain-streaked glass before falling asleep.

***

When the divorce papers sent by the firm representing Mrs. Drake Mathews arrived at his office, he was expecting them. Their previous marriage-counseling sessions revealed in minute detail her festering dissatisfaction with him. The therapy was refereed by a female psychologist in her late fifties who sat comfortably in an oversized armchair with her legs tucked beneath her as if she were watching television. She listened intently as each partner spoke, hoping to hear among the accusations and criticisms anything that could be salvaged and used to repair the couple’s union. Drake’s wife did most of the talking, though, and she was so forthcoming about their private matters that he felt very little inclination to speak himself. During the time his wife had the floor, the doctor’s impartial gaze would often shift its focus to him. She studied his facial expressions and body language for anything that might have betrayed what he was thinking. One particularly heated diatribe culminated with his wife admitting to having had an extended affair. When this admission came to light, there was no need for the therapist to interpret Drake’s feelings; without a word he had stood and left the room.

What Drake did not expect was to be told that the position he’d held for fifteen years had been eliminated as part of a corporate downsizing initiative. Even more unexpected was having the news delivered by his regional manager, the same man who had been sleeping with his wife. The lawsuit he filed against his company was settled out of court and in his favor, but the proceedings had been humiliating and rumors circulated through his industry. And as he began his search for new opportunities, he discovered that the stigma attached to his name left a cautionary flag on his resume and always preceded him to interviews.

During the tumultuous legal proceedings, Drake began to notice a hollow feeling above his stomach. He assumed he’d developed an ulcer and joked with his regular physician that part of his soul had been sucked out; a battery of tests was conducted. His doctor had offered up Brazil as a fine destination when Drake mentioned he might take a long vacation. He was actually reading a copy of Frommer’s guide to South America when the doctor called to tell him he did not have an ulcer and suggested a specialist.

When Drake woke, it was still light outside, but the brunt of the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a fine drizzle that misted out of a gray sky. The temperature had fallen considerably and the hairs on his arms rose as he shivered against the chill drifting in from the balcony. He got up to close the door and felt the spongy carpet beneath his bare feet. Some of the storm had found its way inside and soaked a large area of the floor. He noticed the empty glass on the bed and hoped that the damp spot on the crotch of his trousers was only spilled whisky and melted ice. He shut the door and went to the bathroom to take a shower.

***

The next morning was cool and breezy, with billowy clouds floating in a peaceful sky. Drake walked down a path cut into the dunes that led to the beach. At the entrance, the local police department had posted a sign that warned of strong rip currents. He was headed toward a fishing pier that he could see from his room.  When he had checked in to the hotel, the desk clerk had given him a brief overview of the nearby businesses and attractions. The pier was open to the public and was attached to a shop that sold fishing supplies and groceries. The shop also ran a short-order grill and Drake was able to purchase a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a pair of glazed donuts wrapped in a thin membrane of clear plastic. The massive wooden pilings held the pier’s wide deck high above the crashing breakers and the gentle, green undulations above the deep. The worn older planks, cracked and warped by the costal elements, were interspersed with newer replacements but all bore some scar or stain left by fishermen and the life they wrestled from the ocean below.

At the end, where the pier widened into a rectangle, a colony of sportsmen tended several lines. Some leaned on the railing and others sat on the tops of large red and blue Igloo coolers. By the look of the group, Drake reasoned they had been fishing all night.

Drake also noticed a fierce looking gull busy trying to make a meal out of what might have been the dried viscera of a fish. The bird pecked at the spot, circling around it on rubbery feet. It paid no mind to him as he took a seat on a tall bench nearby and propped his feet up on the railing. He set down his cup and fumbled in the pocket of his shorts for a pack of cigarettes. Drake had given up smoking years ago but had picked up a carton at a gas station in Virginia along with a disposable lighter that he held in the shelter of his cupped hand as he lit the tip of the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had already smoked half of the pack – they were incredibly fresh and delicious – and a bargain by New York City standards.

***

At forty-seven, Drake found himself without a relationship or a career. The hollow space inside him remained, promising a dismal outlook on his future health; he had neglected to contact the recommended specialist. The studio apartment he had moved into after the separation from his wife seemed to decrease daily in size as though it were shrinking while Drake slept. There were days when he would not leave his room at all. Instead, he tried watching the walls for any movement, but reasoned they might have been moving too slowly to be perceived by the naked eye.  He remembered as a teenager watching his stepfather mark the level of booze in his liquor bottles to deter uninvited potation. And so, with a ruler and heavy pencil, he employed a similar method of surveillance by drawing firm ticks on the hardwood floor an inch from the baseboard. He would check the marks mornings and evenings with the ruler to record any activity. It was hard to be certain, but there was either no change or the gradation of his ruler was not precise enough to measure distance on such a small scale.

He had inherited his .45 pistol from an uncle and had lived with it in violation of New York City handgun laws for many years. He enjoyed shooting as a youth and considered himself a good shot, although this particular weapon had remained locked in its case and hidden away since the first day it came into his possession. Once he was again living alone, Drake took time to clean and oil it properly as he became reacquainted with its solid weight, the diamond-patterned grip, and the tension of the trigger by firing imaginary rounds into the plaster of the encroaching walls. When the muscle in his forearm grew too tired to continue he would lift the barrel to his temple and give the trigger a final pull.

He was thinning out years of financial records from a file storage box when he came across a postcard sent to him years ago by someone with whom he’d since fallen out of touch. “Greetings from Poseidon’s Oceanfront Hotel – Cypress Island, NC” was printed on the front above a cartoon sea god wearing a pair of sunglasses. On the back was a blurb about the hotel and the island community. He researched both in greater detail the following day.

Anything that did not fit into the trunk of his Toyota four-door was carried to the curb on trash collection day. He left the same night feeling better than he had in months.

***

Drake finished his breakfast and carried the litter to a garbage can chained to a light post. He lit another cigarette and was about to make the trip back to his hotel room when he heard a commotion at the end of the pier. The group of night fishers had congregated on one side and were looking down at the water as one pointed to a piling where an inflatable raft with the print of the North Carolina state flag was snagged by its tow rope. A few yards away, directly below where Drake was standing, a woman clung desperately to a piling as white-capped swells washed over her. A crowd had gathered on the beach and an old man in bib overalls and a John Deere cap joined him at the railing, mumbling something about rip tides and drowning.

Drake handed his wallet, room key, cigarettes, and lighter to the man. Stepping out of his flip-flops and removing his shirt, he climbed over the side and jumped in feet first. The ocean swallowed him whole and its waters closed off the world above him, shutting out all light and sound as his plunge took him well below the layer holding the sun’s warmth and into a black, cold vacuum. For the instant his body remained in place, neither sinking further nor rising, he wondered if it felt something like this in the end.

When his head broke the surface he was facing away from the pier and it took a moment to establish his bearings. The ocean was calm but the sea was lapping at his face as he treaded water to keep afloat. It was difficult to see. The tiny droplets clinging to his eye lashes distorted his view – tiny, inaccurate lenses that refracted the light bouncing off the surface. He looked up and saw the old man on the pier and traced his position to where the woman hugged the piling. When he swam close enough he could hear her whimpering in panic. He coaxed her into taking his outstretched hand and when she had released her hold on the pier, Drake dove and swam underneath her. He surfaced again behind her and quickly wrapped his left arm around her neck and began towing her to shore. The barnacles encrusting the piling had lacerated the woman’s arms and legs badly and, as Drake swam, she left a trail of blood drifting behind the two of them like scarlet ribbons fluttering in the breeze.

The crowd awaiting them on the beach included two paramedics and a police officer. Three men had waded into the surf and they helped Drake and the woman out of the water. Exhausted, he found a spot just beyond reach of the incoming tide and sat down in the dry sand. One of the rescue workers began treating the woman’s cuts while the other examined Drake and asked if he needed further assistance. Drake waved him away and the medic returned to assist his partner. Among the gathering was the fisherman from the pier, who had brought Drake’s things down to him in a grocery bag. He also carried a roll of paper towels and pulled off several sheets for the dripping hero.

While Drake wiped his face, he noticed that a pair of brightly polished black shoes had appeared beside him. Looking up he could see his soggy reflection in the dark sun glasses of the police officer.  It was peculiar to see someone on the beach so formally dressed. Drake knew that he must have found the full uniform uncomfortable, judging from the beads of sweat that dotted his pink brow and the oily rivulet that trickled from the thick stubble of his crew cut.

When the officer asked for identification, Drake retrieved his wallet from the shopping bag and extracted his New York driver’s license. The officer read Drake’s information into a walkie-talkie and in a few moments a hollow, disembodied voice spoke back in police code that Drake couldn’t understand. From the rear pocket of his blue trousers, the officer produced a thick tablet and took down some details on Drake’s license before handing it back, along with the pink copy of a summons.

As it was explained to him, jumping or diving from a fishing pier was in violation of town ordinance and was clearly posted on all such structures. Drake could pay the $150 fine in person or by mail, and if he wanted to challenge the citation, he could appear in court at the time and location printed on the ticket. Drake was too tired and dumbfounded to protest. He was parched and a sudden wave of nausea only added to his weakened condition. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to stand, much less stumble back to his hotel room. The fisherman, whose principles of justice and civic duty had been challenged, came to Drake’s defense. But his initial appeal was ignored and further, more pointed indignation only bounced off the back of the retreating officer and was silenced by the sand where it fell.  Drake, now fully prostrate, could see the old man scratching at the shaking head beneath his John Deere cap and heard him muttering colorful phrases about local law enforcement.

***

After a few days of debating how to handle the situation, Drake finally decided it would be best to settle the matter in person. He had done his best to try and forget about the whole incident and enjoy himself. With complete abandon he indulged in activities and substances a man his age would have normally avoided or at least taken in moderation. He partook of the culinary offerings around the hotel with ravenous gluttony, surviving on a diet of cheeseburgers, fried food, and doughnuts, finishing each meal with a delicious cigarette. He swam at his own risk, walked for miles on the beach without the aegis of sunscreen, and drank heavily from the whiskey bottle that was soon replaced with another. However, his recent misdemeanor remained an irritant and the pink ticket served as a constant reminder. He had fastened the summons to the refrigerator by a flexible magnet advertising a local restaurant, presumably left behind by a former tenant. The slip had an unpleasant chemical odor that Drake inhaled every time he needed a cold beer.

He appointed a date for himself and on that morning he made himself presentable by showering, shaving, and dressing in clean, pressed clothes. He chose a short-sleeved shirt with a square hem that hung a few inches over his belt, allowing the generous yellow linen to move freely. He left the top two buttons undone to further accentuate what he hoped was a casual demeanor.

Police headquarters was a short drive from the hotel and was set up in a squat cinderblock building that also housed the island’s volunteer fire and rescue. The only person in the building was a chipper civilian office clerk who greeted Drake with a big smile and offered to help in any way she could. He asked to speak with the officer whose name he remembered stamped on the gold plate above his badge and whose signature, written neatly on the ticket, greeted his trips to the refrigerator with a cruel smirk. The clerk said she was waiting for his return from a local eatery where he’d gone to pick up coffee and a ham biscuit for himself and an egg sandwich with ketchup for her. Drake was more than welcome to wait, which he did, passing the time by reading the notices pinned to an enormous bulletin board.

There was an electric eye at the front door which triggered a mild, little beep that announced the station’s comings and goings. When Drake heard the alarm, he turned to see the policeman carrying his takeout order in a small cardboard box printed with the name of a snack cake. His eyes were not hidden behind the dark frames of his glasses and grew wide when they saw Drake approach him from the bulletin board. The officer dropped the box but before he could bring his free hand to the gun in his holster, Drake was already aiming the .45 he’d kept concealed beneath his shirt. He fired two shots directly into the officer’s chest and the force of the pistol’s caliber sent the policeman’s limp body crashing into the wide blood pattern that splattered the wall behind him. The clerk sat frozen behind her desk as the report reverberated around the room. She had turned white and seemed to be choking on a scream stuck in the back of her mouth, hanging open on the hinges of her slackened jaws. He delivered two more slugs into her soft abdomen, knocking her out of the chair.

Drake looked down at where the box of food had hit the floor. The lid of one cup had come off on impact and coffee – with cream – had spilled into a light tan puddle on the linoleum. He tucked his .45 back into his belt and picked up the other cup. He removed the lid and blew lightly on the black coffee before taking a sip. He peeled the foil wrapping from the sandwiches, smelled both and selected the ham biscuit. When he stepped outside, the only thing that noticed him was the electric eye as its high-pitched tone bid Drake farewell.

***

The ham biscuit had given him a bad case of heartburn and he crunched on a chalky antacid tablet as he walked out to the end of the pier. Drake deftly folded the pink ticket into a paper airplane and launched it out across the ocean. The weightless jet teetered on its makeshift wings until it was caught and blown backwards by a strong draft, forcing it to make a crash landing in a bait tank. A cluster of silver fish pecked at the fuselage as if the wreckage were a morsel of food. Drake plucked the dripping paper from the tank and deposited it into a trash can.

The television brought the evening news and the day’s gruesome headline into his room with all the sensationalism the networks reserve for unthinkable crimes committed in small towns where nothing much ever happens.

Drake thought it was all very entertaining as he alternated between the whiskey bottle and a can of beer. The only progress in the investigation was a series of still images taken by a security camera. The grainy black and white photos captured the lone gunman committing his crime as it progressed in ten-second intervals. Drake wanted to take all of the photos and bind them into a flip book so he could watch the murders like a silent movie, as his thumb releasing frame after frame after frame.

It was hard to see his own likeness in the photos, but he wondered if the hotel manager had recognized him as the tenant in room 222, and was, at that very moment, calling the hotline number listed on the bottom of the screen. He picked up the unloaded .45 and squeezed a few empty rounds towards the imaginary strike force kicking down the door. Then he aimed and fired at the blonde anchorwoman whose beauty was spoiled by her solemn recitation of the grisly details.  He continued firing phantom bullets randomly throughout the room, piercing the metal skins of the stove and refrigerator, exploding the lamp’s earthenware base into jagged shards, and leaving the walls riddled with charred, smoking holes.

A chimerical blast chased after each make-believe slug like a harried messenger too late with the news of its deadly arrival.  The concussions echoed off the walls and gradually dissipated into the soft thud of ocean waves striking the shore. Soon, the voice of the Atlantic was the only sound to be heard in the apartment, and into the ringing ear of Drake Mathews it whispered, “The end, the end.”

 

 

 

The Sock Puppet

May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Sock Puppet MasterSocks are important. Be they the thick workaholics inside the boots of a day laborer or the stylish yet humble argyle on the feet of a day trader, our socks are a layer of armor against a chafing world. Sadly, a sock’s lifespan can be short and it is sad when a hole is discovered in the toe or heel of a favorite pair. Even worse is the abrupt loss of a good sock in its prime. In either case, without its twin the surviving stocking is condemned to live out the remainder of its days in a pile of dust rags, in a shine box, or maybe in the drawer of crazy aunt who doesn’t care what she wears.

I was discussing the plight of such raiment orphans with Dan Kilian who admitted having an emotional moment at the pathetic sight of one of his own that had lost its mate.

The following scenario tells one possible alternative for a sock that endures without its better half.

 

The Sock Puppet

The sock puppet wasn’t much of a puppet. There was no mouth stitched into the toe or button eyes sewn on. Really, there were no anthropomorphic features of any kind. He simply pulled an athletic sock over his fist and stretched it up his bare forearm so that the cuff with the three red stripes was just below his elbow.

His light colored garments did not enjoy the benefits of being separated from the dark fabrics on laundry day and as a consequence, regular washing in these unsegregated loads had tinged the original crisp white the color of a rainy day. Normal wear had painted a dark footprint on the sole and and had strained the elasticity so that the sock resembled loose skin.

He moved his wrist up and down bringing the puppet to life. His extended fingers gave what was roughly the head section a pronounced beak. With nothing to serve as eyes or mouth the creature took on the macabre appearance of a condemned man on the hangman’s scaffold, bobbing his hooded head in anticipation of the end.

The puppeteer’s attempt at ventriloquism was no better. He made no effort to obfuscate the movement of his own lips while the sock performed its routine in high pitched voice.

“Hi, everybody. I’m…” It paused and the head looked upward searching the heavens for a nifty stage name. It found no inspiration there and the puppet master demonstrated his mediocrity further, continuing: “…I’m Socks.”

The introduction was met with groans and rolling eyes from the audience who’d gathered.

“Oh, now wait one darn minute,” scolded Socks. “You know what you people need? I’ll tell you what. Imagination, that’s what.”

Mouths curled into unimpressed smirks at the pot regarding the kettle.

“You think it’s easy being a sock puppet? You think it’s all fun and games?”

“It hasn’t been fun so far,” someone shouted.

“Oh, a heckler, eh. Stuff a sock in it buddy!” Socks giggled at his own joke as the crowd grew restless and impatient grumbles began.

“I wasn’t always a puppet you know. But I lost my mate in a tragic laundry accident and I was forced to look for other work.”

“Was he your right hand man,” the heckler gibed on.

Ignoring: “Who’s going to hire a single sock? You might be surprised to learn there aren’t that many amputees out there. So I used my imagination and went into show business.”

“You stink!”

“Well, as a sock that’s part of the act, wiseguy.”

A Fish Story

November 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Mermaid and the Barnacle

Charlie Moses loves cigars. They make him feel like a big shot. Even with dark crescent moons of dirt beneath his fingernails he puffs away like a robber baron behind a big oak desk. The sight of a sea lion basking on a rock often prompts Charlie to remind those around him that if he were ever to adopt a sea lion he would name it Stogie due to the animal’s resemblance to a fat, brown cigar. His brother, known to everyone as Crash, suggests the ripe odor as another reason.

Charlie likes oysters, too.

“You know that old saying about only eating oysters in a month with an R in it? Well, that’s why I like February – there’re two Rs. I reckon that means I eat double,” he says.

I had been searching for Charlie and Crash all day. When I finally found them they were no longer on their boat but seated at a dockside table of the 6 Belles Tavern overlooking the bay and the fishing boats moored in the harbor. I was now eavesdropping on their conversation.

“It’s a good thing February is a short month,” Crash says, “Else you’d eat yourself to death.”

Charlie Moses laughs, pats his enormous gut and sucks another briny slug out of its half shell, washing it down with a hearty swig of beer. Then he gives his cigar another puff and produces a fetid billow that drifts across the table like fog over the bay.

Crash motions to the waitress for the bill. I would have to speak with them later, in a less public location.

The Moses brothers inherited the fishing trade from their father Luther Richmond Moses along with his boat the Barnacle. It was a humble craft that took its name from what Moses senior considered to be the boat’s primary catch. Validation came at the conclusion of every fishing season when a bountiful harvest was scraped from the hull.

The elder Moses never expected his sons to follow in his wet footsteps into the family business. He expected to become a wealthy man, sell the Barnacle and retire young. I confess I am to blame for that fancy.

I first met Luther many years ago before Charlie was old enough for school and Crash was earning his nickname through repeated failures at taking his first steps. It was the height of the season and nearly every pot was brimming with crab and those being hauled to the surface by the Barnacle were no exception.

Dungeness crab is a delicious treat and they are easy enough to catch yourself should you be so desirous but when someone like Luther has done the work of luring them so conveniently into a cage, resisting the urge not to pluck one for yourself is difficult. I was in the process of doing just that when the block and tackle aboard the Barnacle groaned into motion. To my horror I found my hand trapped between the bars of a cage being hauled in and I was part of the days catch. I broke the surface and found myself face to face with Luther Moses who hung over the stern with his mouth agape. He halted halted his machinery leaving me and the cage in the water and I thrashed desperately to escape. “I was putting up quite a fuss,” to quote Captain Moses.

I have friends and relatives who are vociferous regarding our superiority over Earth’s other creatures and while I can’t say I disagree with most of their points, I have a more humble opinion about myself personally. Still, I felt slighted at Luther’s casual reaction over his encounter with a beautiful, enchanting mermaid; he was more concerned over the pilfering of his crabs than beholding one of nature’s most reclusive creatures. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was in the presence of a man so coarse he would lambaste a unicorn if he caught one in his lettuce patch. His accusation of me being a thief was justified – at that moment at least – but I am far from being common. Is it bromidic to say my ego throbbed as much as my poor twisted wrist? He activated the ship’s grinding winches once again and I was lifted fully out of the ocean, swinging from that monstrous cage of indignant crabs. Water dripped down on my tangled hair and my tail flapped helplessly in the air like an ordinary mackerel – it was humiliating.

Flotsam and Jetsam, indeed. Luther welcomed me aboard with a few more prosaic bon mots that sounded as if they’d been borrowed from the churlish mouth of a picaroon. I sat on a slimy deck that reeked of vanquished sea life and only slightly less sour than the barleycorn on Luther’s breath.

“I guess I hooked the mother lode today, huh, my little fish?”

I wasn’t too sure what he was implying. A twinge of fear prickled at the end of my fin when I considered the fate of the other captives, completely helpless now even behind their spiny armor. He seemed all too eager to sail me back to the docks and flaunt the prize he’d snatched from Neptune’s realm. Some cabal of greed and lust covered his eyes in a vitreous glaze transforming them into portentous mirrors in which I saw a reflection of myself gutted, stuffed and mounted like a barracuda. They caught a splinter of sunlight, flashed and the scene changed to one of me swimming in a subaqueous freak show staring out at grotesque, contorting faces pressed to the glass walls of my aquarium prison.

Judging from the smile it was evident that he realized the worth of his unusual catch but I quickly apprised him that the value of my release would be worth far more than anything he might be dreaming about.

“Then the legend is true?” His smile widened, the corners of his mouth disappeared in a forest of whiskers, possibly touching behind his head.

“Yes, well, depending on the legend you have heard.”

“In my legend, I get 3 wishes.”

“One… wish, actually. But it can be anything you desire so consider it very carefully.”

He sat down on the crab pot and gave his stubbled chin a contemplative massage until he’d rubbed the smile into a worrisome scowl. Despite my first impressions of Luther, I could see that he was a thoughtful man who did not take ponderous decisions lightly. We sat for a good while as Luther considered whatever angles his schemes might take. Except for the gentle, wet slapping of waves against the hull and the occasional screeching gull, we sat in ruminating silence.

At last he chose wealth and this is where the story takes a sad turn. I was young and inexperienced; I had never granted a wish before. Looking back, of course, I should have consulted with an elder member of my kind. But to be young is also to be brazen and so when Luther wished to die a rich man I thought my job was all too easy.

“What is your name, gentle fisherman?” I asked.

“Luther. Luther Richmond Moses of Inuit Cliff, California.”

“Then free me Luther Richman Moses of Indian Clip, California. Free me and your wish will be granted.”

He grumbled something about trust as he pried my sore wrist free from the bars. I flopped starboard, threw myself over the gunwale and swam away. Fifty yards out I surfaced again to wave a final goodbye but Luther had his back to me, bent to the chore of emptying his crab pot.

That was the last time I ever saw Luther and there was certainly no reason for a reunion but I was always curious how his life had turned out with the great wealth his single wish had brought him. You can imagine how I felt when I learned that instead of enjoying a life of luxury he had toiled for the next 30 odd years on the Barnacle and had died with next to nothing. Worse still, he was interred beneath a modest headstone donated anonymously with the inscription: Rest in Peace – Luther Rich Man Moses. I was mortified.

“Well, that is some story,” says Crash as he waves away a rancid cloud from Charlie’s Honduran.

“Are you sure we can’t get you something?” asks Charlie. He lifts a can of beer out of cooler. A shard of ice still clings to the metal and Charlie plucks it overboard.

I found the Barnacle and the brothers a mile or two offshore and introduced myself. I was welcomed aboard; Charlie helped me over the gunwale.  Crash went below to retrieve a piece of lawn furniture that unfolded into a chaise lounge. The chair was more germane to a summer patio than the deck of a fishing vessel but it was very comfortable and allowed me to recline fully.

Veneration for phenomenon was apparently not a family trait and my ego experienced a familiar pang from the time I’d met the elder Moses. In their defense, I reasoned the boys had heard the story since childhood and were partially insulated from the full shock of a mermaid in corporeal form. They were a good natured pair and bore me no animosity considering their Father’s tragedy for which I was responsible. They even found humor it.

“We always thought it was one of the old man’s fish stories. He had quite a few.” Charlie let loose a loud belch. “Pardon me.”

Crash shook his head in agreement, “Something he made up to entertain us kids. But when that headstone showed up…”

Charlie finished for his brother, “It gave us pause.”

“A damned good laugh, too.”

And they chuckled again together.

I had come prepared to make handsome restitution but to my surprise the brothers were hesitant to accept. In light of past events they were concerned what form the remuneration might take. It was only after I assured them that I had learned from my mistakes and guaranteed periodic audits of my handiwork that they finally acquiesced, albeit with lingering trepidation.

Charlie still loves his cigars. And although his tastes have become more refined, the higher quality leaf does not emit an exhaust any less offensive according to his brother. Charlie still loves oysters, too. Only now he is less likely to limit his indulgence to months with an R in the name.

The Barnacle was sold and the Moses brothers quickly acclimated to their new lives as men of leisure. They had plenty of time for cocktails at the 6 Belles Tavern every afternoon and would often discuss the validity of their late father’s other fish tales especially one he told concerning a unicorn in his lettuce patch.

Immortal Tea

October 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Every afternoon around 3 O’clock Chin-ten would make himself a cup of tea. He preferred Oolong and kept the tender, dried leaves in a red tin with the words Xian Cha printed on the front. On the back of the tin drawn in silhouette, a Chinese junk sailed towards the skyline of an exotic harbor city underneath a brief history of Xian Cha tea. Chin-ten had never brewed nor tasted Xian Cha. The container was empty when he purchased it for a dime at a garage sale some years ago.

Chin-ten had never sailed on a Junk either and the closest he’d ever been to an exotic port was New York harbor. Chin-ten was born and raised in Flushing where he owned and operated a framing shop. He lived above the shop with his wife Chu-li and when she was still alive they would have tea together every day at 3. He always told his wife as he scooped Oolong out of the tin that one day they would have to sample this recherché delight called Xian Cha but they never did.

A few months after Chu-li had passed away, Chin-ten hung a help wanted sign in the front window of his frame shop. While he could legitimately justify the need for an extra hand, he had to admit to himself that he was lonely working long hours all by himself. And despite his interactions with customers he worried that his isolation was having a negative effect on his sense of reality.

Of the several people who inquired only one seemed capable, a girl in her early twenties named Betty Wu. Betty claimed to be a foreign exchange student enrolled in art school and was studying museum restoration although Chin-ten suspected that she was somehow in the country illegally. The young girl was very pretty and reminded Chin-ten of his late wife in many ways but he asserted to himself that his decision to hire her was based solely on her qualifications: an interest in fine art as a career and previous experience.

She worked weekday afternoons to accommodate her morning class schedule and Chin-ten paid her in cash to avoid any embarrassing revelations of citizenship that could result in the loss of his only suitable candidate. Betty proved to be a reliable and tireless helper.

Chin-ten had never changed his afternoon routine and every day at 3 o’clock he brewed two cups of tea. Only now he shared them with Betty Wu.

Despite the positive changes that his new assistant brought, Chin-ten still missed his Chu-li terribly. He often thought the worst thing that could ever happen was to lose his wife and her passing had unfortunately proved him correct until one day when a customer visited Chin-ten’s shop with a collection of photographs to be framed.

On that morning, Chin-ten looked up from the wooden frame he was assembling when he heard the pleasant jingle of the tiny bell above the shop’s front door that announced the arrival of visitors. The doorway connecting the workshop and the showroom was covered by a heavy curtain. Chin-ten pushed it aside and stepped behind the counter where a young Asian man was standing. He wore overalls and baseball cap with the name Dragon Imports stenciled in gold letters on the crown.

“I wasn’t expecting a delivery,” said Chin-ten.

“Actually, I am dropping off some things from my boss to be framed, photographs,” the man responded, holding up a flat parcel.

The photos were sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard. He placed the package on the counter and Chin-ten carefully peeled off the adhesive tape holding them together.

“It is unusual,” Chin-ten spoke as he worked, “Typically I present the customer with a choice of framing options in person.”

The man explained that the instructions were inside as Chin-ten removed the last of the tape.

Chin-ten lifted the top piece of cardboard using both hands.  When he looked down at the exposed photographs he heard a loud gasp escape from his mouth. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck were on end and he felt the blood drain from his face. He stood motionless like a statue of a man removing the lid from a crate and amazed at the contents.

A sheet of paper had flown out of the packet and fluttered to the linoleum floor. The delivery person had gone to retrieve it and returned deeply concerned over Chin-ten’s reaction.

“What is it, are they damaged?”

He looked at the man, mouth agape, and immediately tried to compose himself and hide the look of shock that calcified his face.

“No, no. Everything is okay, okay.” He forced a smile as the man handed him the paper.

“These are the instructions.”

Printed on the paper was a list that detailed the type of molding, glazing and the color of mat board to be used to complete the framing job as well as who to contact when the work was finished.

“Do you need an estimate?” Chin-ten asked. His voice had the monotone inflection of a robot.

“My boss didn’t say but he wondered if the job could be done by tomorrow.”

Chin-ten cleared his throat to find a chipper tone, “It will cost extra for a rush the job but yes I will have it done by tomorrow.”

The bell rang a good-bye to the delivery man as he left. Chin-ten went to the front window and watched him cross the street to where he’d parked a panel truck with the company name Dragon Imports on the side. The man climbed in and drove away.

Chin-ten took the photos into his shop and spread them out on a worktable. He rubbed his eyes as if something was distorting his vision. He took a deep breath and looked at the assortment of 8 x 10 portraits once more. Chin-ten had framed dozens of glossy corporate headshots just like these. There were five in total, three men and two women, all wearing business clothes and bright, friendly smiles in front of a plain matte background. These were a product of an uninspired yet professional studio photographer and there was nothing exceptional about them, certainly nothing to provoke the reaction he’d displayed in front of the delivery person, except for the one that had been on top of the stack. Chin-ten held the photo in his trembling fingers and stared in disbelief at the face of his late wife Chu-li.

Why did this customer have a photo of his dead wife? Did she have a secret life of which Chin-ten was unaware, had she been involved in a cult, was she still alive? The questions were swarming in his head like a dark cloud of starlings when he heard the bell above the door. That would be Betty, he thought, and hurriedly collected the loose photos. He put them out sight, saying nothing about the matter when Betty stepped through the curtain.

That night Chin-ten found it difficult to fall asleep and when he did at last he slept fitfully, waking often before drifting off again. Around 4 a.m. he decided it was useless to stay in bed. In the kitchen he let the tap run until the water was cold and splashed a few handfuls on his face before putting the tea kettle on to boil. He walked downstairs to examine the mysterious photograph once more but to his astonishment, Chu-li was no longer in the picture.

Chin-ten was frightened that he was losing his mind and was unduly startled by the sudden, querulous whistle of the tea kettle that fractured the pall of silence. As he mounted the stairs the kettle was silenced as if it had been taken off the heat. When Chin-ten entered the kitchen he saw that Chu-li was steeping the tea.

“Don’t be frightened, Chin-ten. Here, I have made your tea.”

He began to stammer.

“No, Chin-ten, this is not a dream. I am real but I am a ghost.”

Chin-ten felt his knees weaken and he clutched the back of a kitchen chair for support. The legs made a dry scraping sound as he pulled it out from under the table to sit. She placed the cup in front of him and the steam rose from the hot liquid like an apparition. He hesitated, picked up the cup with a shaking hand, blew and took a sip to test the corporeal nature of the drink.

Chu-li took the seat across from him and spoke. Her breath was icy and her words made Chin-ten shiver.

The year she died, Chin-ten was to celebrate his 30th birthday and Chu-li wanted to give him a special present to commemorate this pivotal event. She had given it considerable thought but was unable to think of an appropriate gift until one afternoon at 3 when the two of them were having tea. In all the years that Chin-ten had been using that peculiar tin, he had never once tried Xian Cha tea and Chu-li was determined to find this alluring delight. Covertly, she examined the container and found a label on the bottom that gave the name of a company and an address: Dragon Imports, Java Street, Brooklyn, New York. There was no phone number listed so she went to the business in person.

Dragon Imports was located in a desolate and depressing section of the city surrounded by junk and scrap yards and a water treatment plant. She made the long trip from Flushing to Greenpoint by bus and walked the remaining distance from the bus stop to an unassuming warehouse on Java Street. The company was on the second floor of the building and she climbed a worn, rickety staircase to the office.

The cold, dimly lit room was large and smelled of mildew. It was cluttered with a divergent array of goods including anything from cookware and pottery to lamps and silk garments. The only congruity to this merchandise was that it might have been imported from the Far East. The space was unattended but there was button on the wall to push for service. Within seconds an old gentleman who introduced himself as the owner of Dragon Imports appeared from seemingly nowhere. His appearance was as impeccable as his politesse. At first he spoke to Chu-li in Mandarin but quickly changed to English when he realized by her expression that she did not understand the language.

When Chu-li explained why she’d had come and asked if she could purchase Xian Cha tea directly, the owner assured her that he would be happy to sell it to her but that it was very expensive. It was indeed exorbitantly priced and Chu-li demurred.

Seeing her disappointment, the man suggested another gift. He cited her husband’s appreciation for decorative containers and took from a shelf a Japanese puzzle box with a delicate marquetry that formed the shape of a serpent wrapping itself around the exterior. He commented on the fine craftsmanship and demonstrated the delicate complexities involved in finding the single combination to open the box by sliding hidden panels in the proper order. When he had removed the lid he held it up to Chu-li and she saw her reflection in a mirror affixed to the underside. The moment her eyes touched the glass she felt dizzy but she was unable to look away. She no longer recognized the swirling mosaics of multi-colored glass that had been her own eyes. The undulating kaleidoscopes peering out of the mirror slowly lost all color until they were finally lifeless black. It was over in manner of seconds and as the man withdrew the lid from Chu-li’s vision she saw that his lips were curled into a sinister grin. She left quickly, nearly falling down the staircase as the man’s hollow laugh chased after her.

In the months that followed Chu-li developed an illness that mystified her doctors. She presented with no other symptoms but high fever and extreme weakness. She became so debilitated that Chin-ten had her hospitalized and she was placed in an intensive care unit. Her condition deteriorated rapidly until one morning when a nurse shook Chin-ten awake from where he was sleeping in a waiting room chair. She whispered that Chu-li had slipped away.

“Chin-ten, the man at Dragon Imports steals souls. This theft of my being is what killed me. He uses these souls in Xian Cha tea; he grinds them up and mixes them into the leaves. The tea is sold to people who desire a new life. His customers are the terminally ill, the very old or the hunted criminal who is desperate for new identity.”

Chin-ten blew on his tea. He had wrapped both hands around the cup against the chill that gripped the small kitchen.

“What would you have me do, call the police? And tell them what? Do you know how crazy this sounds?”

“Chin-ten, there are many more like my soul being held prisoner in his puzzle box. We will lose our souls forever unless we can be freed.”

“But, I’m no shaman…witchdoctor…whatever you call it. How do you expect…”

The ghost of Chu-li smiled and said, “Simply find the puzzle box and open it, dear husband.”

Chin-ten woke early the next morning slumped on the kitchen table, the remaining tea cold in the cup beside him. He felt foolish for having fallen asleep in such a place and worried for a moment that he had started sleep walking. He convinced himself that Chu-li’s visit and her fantastic story had all been a dream and he castigated his ludicrous subconscious.

After he’d washed and dressed he went directly to his workshop.  The photo of Chu-li was as it had been when it was delivered with her lovely face smiling out at him. Regardless of the odd nature of his situation, Chin-ten knew it would be of interest to the police.

Why would Dragon Imports be in the possession of a photo of his deceased wife? Perhaps something or someone there was responsible for her death. What about the other faces smiling up at him from the work table? Were they in danger, had something terrible befallen them as well. It was, as Chin-tin resolutely decided, a matter for the authorities to investigate.

The phone and the number for his precinct were in the front room. As he started in that direction he noticed something moving on the photos that stopped him short. At first he thought it was light refracting off the paper’s high gloss but instead it was the eyes of each person starting to change. Chin-ten watched astonished as each underwent the kaleidoscopic phenomenon that Chu-li had described before extinguishing to pitch black.

He set to work on the job immediately; he wasted no time in ridding his shop of whatever evil he had allowed across the threshold. He called the contact number in the instructions. The same delivery person as before arrived with the balance due and was gone before noon.  When Betty Wu arrived he left her in charge of the shop with instructions to lock up if he hadn’t returned by closing time from his important errand.

By mid-afternoon Chin-ten was climbing the squeaky steps of Dragon Imports. The picture that Chu-li had sketched in his mind was so vivid that Chin-ten felt as if he had made this squealing ascent many times before and knew what to expect on the other side of the office door. The room was deserted and the raspy complaints of the corroded door hinges reported his entrance to no one. The dusky light of an expiring afternoon filtered in through large, grimy windows with chicken wire skeletons.

There was a small hole in the shabby wooden floor that allowed a glimpse of the world that bustled below him. From what Chin-ten could tell the business occupying the ground floor was some sort of sweatshop. There were bolts of colorful cloth printed with the characters of a popular cartoon and women hunched over whirring sewing machines.

Chin-ten surveyed the merchandise mounded on tables, stacked in bins and stuffed on shelves. Had Chin-ten known no different he would have guessed that Dragon Imports was the supplier of ridiculously cliché, Pan-Asian vendibles to every stall in Chinatown. Standing prominently in the morass of second-rate inventory was a bronze statue of a Chinese soldier from an ancient dynasty. Posted as a sentry in the absence of a shopkeeper, it followed Chin-ten’s movements with blind, patina eyes. Chin-ten focused on a wall of Japanese puzzle boxes of various shapes and sizes. They were cheap factory models with poorly applied lacquer and crooked decorative patterns; amid these imitations the object of his search was easy to spot.

The chest was simple but undeniably handmade by a master craftsman. The scales glistened along the back of the serpent coiling around the box. Its hypnotic ruby eyes flashed and its ivory fangs were poised to strike at whoever dared plunder the treasure it guarded.

“May I help you, sir?”

Chin-ten jumped, startled. He had not seen or heard anyone enter the room and he wheeled around abruptly to see an old man staring at him through a pair of wire rimmed glasses with thick, round lenses. He was short, at least a foot shorter than Chin-ten, and he wore a fine silk suit that was perfectly tailored to fit his lean stature. He stroked a perfectly trimmed goatee that was silver with age and Chin-ten could see that his long fingernails were immaculately manicured and tapered into sharp points. His head was bald but the skin was stretched tight across the shining dome of his skull and free of crease or livery blemishes.

Chin-ten was caught completely off guard. In his haste to get to Dragon Imports and find the puzzle box he had failed to invent a believable excuse for his visit, especially to a business hidden away in the nether folds of Brooklyn’s seedy belly. He blurted out, “Tea, I came to purchase Xian Cha tea.

The old man’s spectacles magnified his bright, inquisitive eyes and they narrowed as he scanned Chin-ten from head to toe as if shrewdly appraising the common appearance of a man seeking such an exceptional delectation.

“Of course. I am Mr. Tan. I am the proprietor of Dragon Imports and I perceive you to be a man of exquisite taste. How, may I ask, did you come to know of our tea?”

Chin-ten lied, “A business associate of mine. You understand, naturally, I cannot disclose a specific name.”

The old man grinned, “Naturally. And did he, your associate, disclose the value of our tea?”

“He said it was priced according to its value but no specific price was mentioned.”

Mr. Tan slid a wispy hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and produced what appeared to be a business card and held it forward. At first Chin-ten thought the owner suspected he was being deceived and this gesture politely implied that their business was concluded.  The card that Chin-ten accepted was plain, however, except for a price in dollars written in neat script – outrageous.

“Today’s price,” said Mr. Tan.

Chin-ten tried to act nonchalant and handed the card back saying in a voice he hoped sounded insouciant, “That figure will not a problem.”

“Excellent. Please, this way.” Mr. Tan signaled for him to follow and he led Chin-ten to a second door that opened to a long, narrow hallway. “After you, sir.”

The polished hardwood floor that stretched the length of the brightly lit passageway shimmered like the surface of a pond beneath the midday sun. The exposed brick walls on either side had been painted fire engine red and seemed to pulse like hot blood coursing through an artery. Chin-ten heard the percussive taps of Mr. Tan’s spotless wingtips behind him as the two marched forward. They entered a rotunda with plain white walls, a floor of damask colored marble and a high vaulted ceiling finished entirely with gold leaf. A cincture of lights was concealed behind molding that ringed the junction of wall and ceiling illuminating the gilded canopy. The light radiating down washed the room in warm, aureate brilliance.

As in a museum gallery, framed portraits were hung around the entire circumference of the room below an individual brass picture light. There were, Chin-ten counted, 35 in total. Underneath each stood a podium in the style of an Ionic column with a fluted shaft and scrolls carved into the capital. Resting on top were rectangular packages wrapped in simple, Kraft paper. A palsied woman who looked to be in her seventies was the only other customer in the space. She was dressed in Chanel and supported herself with a walking cane.

Mr. Tan spread his arms in a gesture of presentation. “Please. You are free to browse our current selection. Each blend is one of a kind. I am positive you will find a tea to your liking.”

Chin-ten approached the portrait closest to him. It was the same style of photo as the five he’d framed earlier. The work matched his own although he did not recognize the handsome young man smiling back at him. Below the photo was a plaque listing the subject’s age, height and weight. The only other information was a manufacturing date and serial number that matched that which was printed on the packages of Xian Cha tea. He moved to the next, a beautiful young woman with the same information.

The woman across the room summoned Mr. Tan who went to assist. Mr. Tan placed her selection of tea in the shoulder bag she carried. Then he removed the photo from the wall above the empty podium and escorted her out of the room.

Chin-ten went quickly from portrait to portrait. He came to a stop in front of a familiar face. A caustic mixture of rage and bitter sorrow boiled inside him and he felt his eyes well. That there was no name to indicate who Chu-li had been in her past life served as a final ignominy. It was as if she had been a nameless victim of senseless genocide and interred in a mass, unmarked grave.

From far down the hallway he heard the snap of Mr. Tan’s hard soles on the wooden floor. They grew louder as he approached and soon his footsteps were reverberating off the cold marble until the ceased directly behind Chin-ten.

Chin-ten closed his eyes and in the darkness a motion picture flickered on a screen. In the film Chin-ten whirls, delivering a solid punch to the tender abdomen of Mr. Tan who doubles over in pain as he gasps desperately for the air forced out of his lungs. In a single motion Chin-ten grabs the defenseless head and brings his knee powerfully up into Mr. Tan’s face knocking the old man to the floor.  Chin-ten kneels over the prostrate body and begins smashing the skull into the stone. The violent act creates wet, crunching sounds as the bone shatters and the insides spray out covering the floor with a gruesome impasto of blood and brains.

Chin-ten opened his eyes. Mr. Tan was waiting patiently with his hands folded in front of his chest and wearing a serene smile. He asked politely, “Have you found your perfect tea, sir?”

Chin-ten answered flatly, “No, none of these will do.”

Mr. Tan, in all sincerity, looked disconcerted that he could not meet a customer’s needs. He said with concern in his tone, “Please, take your time, perhaps another look.”

“No, none of these will do. But I will have that Japanese puzzle box you have in the front.”

This was met with silence.

“The one with the snake wrapped around it. I will have that one.”

Mr. Tan was calm but his polite smile had vanished and he spoke slowly in voice hardened by gravity, “That is not for sale, sir.”

“I will have it.” And Chin-ten was off and running down the throbbing red hall with Mr. Tan’s quick, clicking steps in pursuit.

In the front office Chin-ten seized the box from the shelf and at once realized he had no idea how to open it. When Mr. Tan caught up with him, Chin-ten was holding the box over his head and as the old man lunged to intervene Chin-ten slammed the box down on the sharp apex of the bronze warrior’s helmet. Mr. Tan screamed for him to stop. Chin-ten closed his eyes and the violent film played. He brought the box down again and again with all his strength until it splintered and broke open with a loud crack. He threw the mangled wreckage on the floor at Mr. Tan’s feet who knelt immediately, trying to mend the damage. As he did, shining globs of metallic liquid slithered out like mercury released from a smashed thermometer. Mr. Tan frantically tried to catch them but they eluded his desperate clutches and glided with the twitching hide of quicksilver through the hole in the floor. Tan crawled on all fours to hole and bent to peer into the sweatshop below. He lifted his head and his face twisted into a hideous scowl. He rose to his feet and pointed a lithe finger at Chin-ten and began cursing him in Mandarin and then in a dialect Chin-ten did not recognize. His complexion had flushed to deep crimson and drool oozed from the corners of his mouth as he spit out his inflamed diatribe. The man’s eyes, bright with rage, rolled back into his head, exposing the glistening, translucent whites, crisscrossed with crooked rivulets of grotesque, red veins. He bolted from the room, down the creaking steps in pursuit of what Chin-ten reckoned were emancipated souls.

Alone, Chin-ten returned to the gallery and collected the packages of tea on Chu-li’s pedestal like remains. He looked at here beautiful face once more and was gone.

In the anxious weeks that followed, Chin-ten fully expected to be paid a visit by the police with warrants of arrest for theft and destruction of property. He worried that Mr. Tan himself might come into the frame shop reinforced by ghoulish, satanic confederates seeking some sort of recompense or worse. But nothing happened and Chin-ten’s modest life returned to a normal routine. The only evidence that the absurd events ever took place was the tea. He kept it wrapped in the kitchen beside the tin of Xian Cha that he promised himself he would dispose of but had not.

One afternoon at 3 o’clock while Chin-ten was waiting for the water to boil, he took the tin from its place, flipped the can over and carefully read the back. He’d read the product description many times over the years but always with the detached attention of someone reading the insignificant information on the back of a cereal box while they ate breakfast.

Xian Cha, tea of the immortals…an ancient art of tea making…nourishes the soul…transform into a new person…

How long would it take? He wondered. He opened one of the Kraft paper packages and emptied the tea into the tin. He brewed a cup and took it downstairs to the frame shop where Betty Wu put down her work, eagerly accepting the refreshment.

“Is this different?” she asked after her first sip.

“Yes, it is something new. Something I think you will like.”

Betty Wu shrugged. “It tastes like green tea, Chin-ten. But it’s better than that Oolong you always make.” She winked at him and drank what would be the first of many cups filled with Xian Cha tea. In time all of the tea was gone and Chin-ten was reunited with his wife, Chu-li.

Sharks are Nothing to Joke About

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

joke-sharkAs a boy I was an actor in the motion picture Jaws. Not the original but the sequel, Jaws 2. It wasn’t big role in fact it was a “bit” part. This pun sent the nameless, faceless strangers in my dream into a fit of laughter, rib clutching and thigh slapping. “’Bit’ part, did you hear that?” a few repeated, choking on hysteria.

A ticker tape parade was held in my honour and I rode down the valley of heroes in a Cadillac convertible sitting up high on the shining black metal skin with my feet resting on the leather seat and waving to a cheering crowd. Buckets of confetti transformed the mild spring day into a raging blizzard and long ribbons of ticker tape slithered through the air like flying snakes.

A marching band blared and I woke to the opening trumpets of Tchaikovsky’s fourth coming from the clock-radio on my night stand. I hit the snooze button and closed my eyes, groping in the darkness for the door that opened to the twisted, shadowy corridors and enigmatic chambers where obscure characters told better jokes.

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