skirted by vines

Cynthia Gregory

Roxanne Ryan baked bread when the depression came down on her like a moonless night. Yeast called to her with its sour gas, startled her from her sleep.  She thrashed and rolled her bed sheets into a ball seeking comfort on the mattress, and then she switched on the bedside lamp. She woke with stomach cramps, spilled flour from her knotted fist onto the bedroom floor. Scruffy snorted from his pillow of MacGregor plaid flannel. She rubbed his nose and found a pair of cotton sweat socks to keep the cold out for when she stood on the kitchen linoleum, kneading whole wheat sourdough. When things got bad, even the Xanax didn’t work. Nothing worked except the smell of bread baking, the essence of a fine brown crust forming on a loaf.         

Roxanne cut butter into flour to form a sweet dough. She dribbled in sweet cream and yogurt. She dropped in soft currants soaked in orange brandy. A spongy mass formed and she turned it out onto a slab of marble she got as surplus at the old church renovation site. The county was gentrifying. Open fields close to town were being replaced with decorating studios. While some families still kept chickens that scratched in the dirt  between houses, the old Victorians on Main were finally getting fixed up. As towns went, Cold Water had allure for young professionals who got struck dumb at the beauty of the place while on vacation and who decided to move to paradise.

When Roxanne left Kenny, she gravitated back to that western familiarity. She copied bread recipes from Sunset magazine and poured over the San Francisco Chronicle in bed Sunday mornings with milky Costa Rican blend coffee. On Kenny’s transfer to Alexandria, she learned to live in a world roped by traditions and she became bound. It wasn’t until she cut through Denver on I-70 and across the Continental Divide, rolling back toward the Pacific, that Roxanne took a deep breath for the first time in what could have been years. In Cold Water, she surrendered to simplicity. On the western lip of North America, she yielded to the alchemy of bread.

Roxanne speed-dialed Virginia. At two in the morning in San Francisco, it was five in the east and Mercedes Lazarus was just waking, getting ready to take the train into D.C. to review legal briefs for the EPA.

“Hi, baby.” Mercedes caught calls on the first ring. She jogged onto her trampoline the minute the phone went off, working up endorphins.

Roxanne pressed her eyes shut. “Geniuses are supposed to be able to live on  two or three hours of sleep a night. By now I should be channeling Einstein.”

“How about. Anais Nin!”  Mercedes breathed hard into the handset. “So.  Baby, spill.”

Mercedes lived on pesto and call waiting and was a perpetual motion machine.  Her blood was equal parts Italian and Greek, separated from the homeland by a distance of two generations, requiring dinner with her parents every Sunday, after which she drank grappa with her father at the kitchen table;  shared Viceroys. She made tomato gravy and Greek salad with an essence of garlic that oozed from her pores. Mercedes was the only woman whose lips Roxanne had ever kissed besides her own mother’s.

“What are you doing up? It’s the middle. Of night there.”

“I’m baking. It’s my new therapy.”

“Ha.” Springs creaked in the beat between bounces.

“I’m rising to a higher power. One loaf at a time.”  Roxanne shook her head, felt the weight of silver earrings against her cheek. “Bread good as a psychic Rolf.”

“So what’s this I? Sense blueness?”

“Maybe lavenderness. Second guessingness.”

“Self awareness. About —”

“You know, leaving.”

“We’ve covered this ground. Your only crime was falling. Out of love.  You’re not. As screwed up. As you imagine. Actually, I think. You’re sane for the first. Time maybe in your life.”

“Yes, well.”

Roxanne rolled the dough into a ball. She covered it with a damp dish towel and greased the bowl before dropping it in, setting the timer. “Did I tell you? I had dinner  with my step-brother last week? He married two sisters.”

Mercedes’ voice garbled. There was the sound of rushing water, the scritch of bristles on tooth enamel.

“One couldn’t have babies, so she left. Lana says the other, the fertile one, is hell on wheels. She says Robert is a polygamist.”

“Is he?” Her voice dropped to her throat, a gathering to spit.

“Number one allegedly loved him so much, she gave him up.”

“Still water —”

“It makes me wonder —”

“More aggravation —”

“You think you know somebody —”

“Everyone sees things, people. Through the filter of their own perception, you know. It’s nothing new.”

“What will I say about Kenny in twenty years?”

“You’re very clear about Kenny’s shortcomings.”

“Still —”

“Trust me.”


“You loved him once, that’s enough. Hold on a minute.” The sound of toilet plumbing roared through the line. “I have to put my hair up. I’ve got five minutes before I have to run to make the bloody train.”

“Late again.”



“Never mind. I’ll call you from the car. Or the way in.”

“I miss you, baby.”

“I miss you back. Ciao.”

Roxanne Ryan tapped her fingers against the stove top. She dropped the cordless into a basket and wondered if she should color her hair blonde, wondered if she would ever date again. It was four o’clock in the morning of the ninth month of the year of her first divorce.  She had moved back west, rented a cottage in the vineyards north of San Francisco. She was skirted by vines and grapes, sweet-smelling dirt. Roxanne swam in a sea of leafy vines that rose up out of the valley floor and spread across the golden coastal hills. In a countryside swarming with weekend tourists, Roxanne scraped her knees praying for answers in a language that she understood, which, as it turned out, was the language of flour and water, the exchange of gasses, of leavening. Four brown loaves cooled on racks on the kitchen table. Four brown, smooth, perfect loaves that could soak up butter and jam and sudden, unexplainable melancholy. Bread that could fill empty places. Bread and chocolate and blues.  Roxanne dabbed her eye where it got moist and lit a cigarette. She called her lawyer. Five o’clock San Francisco made it eight in Chevy Chase.

“Michael Goldman.” Goldman answered the phone himself, his receptionist being late. Again. He was genial, a gentleman. Her therapist told her, available. His courtesy cost her roughly twenty bucks a minute. Each conversation  with him cost her half of a pair of Ferragamo’s.  A CD player. A standing rib roast at Raley’s. This conversation had the potential to become a new pair of Joan and David’s. Dinner at Don Giovanni’s.

“Maybe you should take on some work,” Goldman had said. “It wouldn’t hurt to establish at least the impression that you’re moving forward.”

“I did it,” she told him. “You know, as my attorney I thought you should be informed.”

On his advice, and for the first time in ten years, Roxanne took a writing assignment. She chronicled famous wine country spas for an artsy travel magazine. She called the first place on the list, checked in for a facial:  research in the form of a four-layer seaweed wrap.  The therapist patted thick cream onto her face and while it hardened to a therapeutic crust, she worked an emollient into Roxanne’s feet, wrapped them in plastic bags, tucked them into heated booties. She could do this every month of the year. She could wake up next to a stunt man named Paolo, whisper for a cappuccino, eat cucumber sandwiches. It was something to consider while the facialist worked a rosemary scented cream into her hand, pulling her fingers until she shot into a beta state, right past alpha, into dream land.

Now her unconscious wrestled angels, gathered fancy pigeons. Now rock stars haunted her bedroom, handsome ER doctors made consultations. Now she and Kenny struggled over control of the oars of a rowboat on an artificial lake. The reservoir was full; the turbines of the dam pulled at them.

“Give up,” Kenny shouted to her. “It’s futile.”

“Bite me,” she said, grabbed an oar and thrust it in the water. “It wasn’t me you wanted, it was that lady barber.”

Kenny paddled hard with the remaining oar, propelling the boat in circles. Loaves of Italian slipper bread floated in the sky. All the babies they did not have, would never have, floated like wafers in the water, swathed in organza layettes, trimmed in lace, dotted with raisins. This is why she did not sleep.

Last spring, during the year of their estrangement, she had suggested alimony. Kenny’s voice fell a decibel. “You could get a job,” he said. “You’re capable. F.Y.I.: these days its called spousal support, a contingency that can go either way.” It was the intimation of a tactic. That he could demand she pay to support him, retribution for working up the courage to leave.  The kitchen timer went off and the phone rang.

“To hell with. Work,” Mercedes told her.  “Enroll in school. You could get. Your master’s degree. If you wanted.”

“In what?”

“Jesus, who knows. Professional wrestling. Literature. Do what you love. Pursue the culinary sciences.”

“I feel as if I’m dancing on the edge of a cliff. It could go either way.”

“Take up yoga. Give up vices.”

Roxanne moaned. “But I’ve given up everything I know.”

“The Tao would say. Give up even that.”

 Mercedes was off caffeine, but still went to the coffee houses, for the ambiance, the magazines, the sense of literary importance. She was a lawyer with literary ambitions, with mommy ambitions, with ambitions even she could not yet define, so great was her reserve of energy. Roxanne suspected that the miscarriage and the ectopic pregnancy were the result of some weird vortex Mercedes Lazarus created in her moving-fastness.

Roxanne toasted a piece of bread, slathered it with plum jam, sniffed at it, pushed it away. “I met a man. A lawyer.” 

“Gosh. Well?”

“Wounded, God. I’m so over men. Give me someone who hasn’t cried publicly for a year.  A recovering sensitive. Jee-sus.”

“Harsh, baby.”

“No.” Roxanne opened a seltzer water, sprayed the front of her jammies. She reached for a towel. “Ahhh, shoot. Maybe.”

“You’ll rebound.”

“I don’t know.  The idea of dating, of dancing. Body contact with a virtual stranger.”

“Depends on the stranger.”

“Plus, you get close, there are smells.”


“Soap. Shampoo. Laundry detergent. Belly to belly, ear to ear. And kissing. The idea of saliva is paralyzing.”


“Breathing in, out.”

“Anyway, the lawyer.”

“Ahhh. Beautiful smile, but so goddamned sad.”

The train whistle came tinny through the handset, the warning blast of an approaching station. “The grass isn’t any greener on the other side,” Mercedes said. A tapping of laptop keys floated between her words. “Truth is, tap-tap, on the other side, tap, there is no grass.” The shriek of brakes rose up through the phone.

Roxanne threw a pinch of salt over her shoulder. “You have to go.”

The air smelled of pine and bay laurel. A light rain fell before dawn, a sky full of waterbeads letting go, dropping into an ocean of air. The lawyer took her to dinner at the local bistro du jour. The place was austere to the nth. They took no reservations, the waiters were young, swarthy, tuxedo shirts, pony tails. The walls of the restaurant were painted terra cotta and the floor was stained saffron.  Candles flickered from wall sconces. When the food came, it was arranged artfully on wide brimmed plates. The lawyer ate oysters to begin, and after the entree he ordered flan. He smiled and said, viagra, vasectomy.

“Um,” she said, “Saw Palmetto. Zinc.”

I’ll look it up, he said. You do that.

There were judges, teachers, novelists waiting to get seats. Roxanne lifted her glass of pinot grigio and observed happy couples over the rim of the glass,  tinted gold by wine.  She felt the same twinge of envy that she had when she and Kenny were trying to have babies and passed young families on the street. After twenty-six weeks of Clomed and disappointment, they avoided city parks and shopping malls.

The how-to market was explosive with books on how to navigate divorce, not get screwed, look after your interests. But there were nuances that were not explored in the divorce manuals. They didn’t say that you would miss being married, double, if you did it well. If you happened to like turning junk store tables into decorator accents. If you thought selecting the correct wallpaper was tantamount to a feat of civic heroism. If your coq au vin was talked about in three states.

The books didn’t tell you that you might find yourself wandering into hardware stores shopping for kitchen tiles for your ex’s kitchen makeover. That you would become aroused by magazine ads for men’s underwear. That your intentions for independence would be subverted by well-meaning family members who said, what a shame, what a shame, as if you had killed someone. Poisoned someone. Admitted over the creamed peas and buttermilk biscuits that you wished his plane would jack-knife out of the sky into an Iowa cornfield.

Certain associations would bask in a florid superiority. They would offer woolly threads of advice. After a while you would learn to just smile and hold your breath when sentences began with that airy Well, you know. . . .

You wonder if you’re sane. You wonder if your shrink is sane. You wonder if the pharmacist who fills your prescription could have anything interesting to say after sex. You find that you are both a stereotype (statistic) and forging new territory.  You may flirt with a young woman at the Barnes & Noble coffee counter. You may wonder if love came at you like that, what you would do about it. You will discover that investment brokers are not your friends; they work on commission. You will remember that the box of Christmas ornaments you gave to your ex contained a collection of Santas and you will pay penance to get it back. You will perform a live enactment of the Last Supper superimposed over  the Seven Stages of Grief. Love stories will make you cry and war epics will raise your blood. You will discover that a dark theater and a sad movie are cathartic and meaningful in a way beyond therapy.

Roxanne braided ropy strands of Challah and set it aside to rise. She took a carton of eggshells out to the composter and startled a raccoon picking through the wilted lettuce she ritually bought for good health and then watched turn to green mush in the refrigerator. The night sky was brave. Jupiter sparked in the early dark, winking. The raccoon’s eyes glinted with ephemeral light and Roxanne felt herself lift off. It was midnight: too early in the east, too late in the west. This was what it was like in space, a vacuum.

Sleep was her panacea, coming in bits and snatches, between the rising of dough, the baking and cooling of loaves. The phone was shaped like a baguette, a comfort that fitted in the palm of her hand.

“I have something. To say, big news.  But don’t want to. Tip your canoe.”

“You can tell me anything.”

“I would love it. If you were happy. For me. Us.”

Roxanne pushed the blade of a knife into a rectangle of dough, cutting squares. “Did you put that milagro I sent you on the back of your bed like I told you?”


“Baby! Hey! It worked.”

Mercedes blew air. “Totally.”

“Well.”  Roxanne stared into the still dark sky. In the east, a faint glimmer of yellow tinted the horizon.

“It was a fluke. Not even a command.  Performance, you know what. It’s like.”

“That’s the way it happens. So you better stop slogging around super fund sights.  No more chances.”

Mercedes’s voice was muffled. She was pulling off a sweatshirt, possibly pulling on a fresh tee.

“Will you?”

“No! More rivers dead with chemicals. No imperiled aviaries.”

“There are considerations now you didn’t have before, like maybe slowing down, letting someone else take up the slack. Putting your feet up. You don’t have to be a hotshot all the time. Imagine what it’s like inside there, inside you, that kind of magic. Witness that.”

Roxanne brushed melted butter across the top of her dough squares, sprinkled them with granulated sugar and lemon zest. Mercedes was quiet. There was no sound of trampoline, no hard breath. “So how far are we talking?”


“What does Marcus think?”

“My adorable chemical engineer says pseudo podia.”

“Super fund? What?”

Pseudo podia. False-foot.”

“No clue.”

“False foot. It’s how amoebae move. They create a false foot, a hologram. Then move their bodies with the imaginary foot. Then it dissolves.”

Roxanne spilled coffee into a filter, poured scalding water, brewed a pot of Costa Rican, inhaled the heady fragrance.

“Moving in new directions. Now we both are, you see? I signed up for school. The Culinary Institute actually, I registered.”

“Baby, that’s great.”

“Yeah, babies, it is.” The line spiraled vacant a moment, one of those empty spaces you could lose yourself in, sink into, an oven of very deep quiet.   

“Could you be godmother, you think?”

“Of course I will. You know I will. I’ll teach them to bake bread.”


“One at a time, naturally. Hey.”


“This one is for good.”          

Mercedes laughed, a signature sound that ended on a rising note. “I love you, baby.”

“I love you back.”

Roxanne cupped her palm against her throat.  She poured a steaming stream of very dark roast, added a shot of hazelnut syrup. She could count on one hand the things that she knew for sure. There was Mercedes’ love, sovereignty, and bread. She loved bread and Mercedes and mornings in the dark just before the sparrows went wild with song. And yeast. Yeast was something to be trusted. Like an amoeba, a living organism, a teeming culture, a hologram. It grew phantom feet, stood on them in a universe that made allowances for miraculous appendages.       

# # #

this prize-winning story is previously published

all rights retained by author, 2013

zero gravity

?????????????????????????Laws of Attraction

I understood then
the burden of gravity
parallel lines, parallel destinies
never meant to converge
in the space-time
continuum of love

gravity brought you to me
a collision of souls
ending in a single point
a beginning and
an ending

With you, I was
free-falling, weightless
lighter than air
zero gravity

but all objects fall
at the same rate
regardless of
their mass

what goes up
must come down
gravitational pull
surface tension
the unseen forces
of natural law

inevitable, predictable
a formula for pain
an apple dropped
my heart sank
you left and
I hit the ground hard

Kelly Mason

a way out


Pam Lazos

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Robbie and Amara lay on a tightly woven reed mat beneath an open window, the spare light of the crescent moon casting the faintest of shadows. His arm rested protectively on her belly. The thin blanket that had covered them lay crumpled on the floor, thrown off in the dead of night and heat. A cool, light breeze blew off the water through the open window, washing over their sleeping bodies in an undulating rhythm that kept time with the passing centuries. Waves lapped against the quonset hut’s foundation.

Robbie drew a deep, choking breath as one coming up for air after too long underwater. He coughed and it woke him. He bolted upright in bed and Amara woke, too.

“What is it?” Amara put a hand on his back and felt through the well-toned muscle and bone the panic that lay buried inside. “Your heart is beating very fast.”

Robbie took several breaths in rapid succession then pulled her to him.

“You’re cold,” Robbie said.

“So are you.” Amara grabbed the blanket and pulled it up over them. Robbie relaxed and they both lay down on the reed mat again. A rustle just below the hut refocused Robbie’s attention and he was out of bed in an instant.

“It’s only a mouse,” Amara said.

“We’re surrounded by water.”

“Not everywhere is water. Much is just mud. The water is high now because of the spring rains.”

“Well, how will he get out?”

“There’s always a way out,” Amara said. “Besides, mice are excellent swimmers. Please.” She held the blanket up, an invitation for him to join her.

Robbie lay down next to her. “Sorry. Just a little jumpy.”

“It is because no one has been here for so long. You do not see this well because we come in the middle of the night. I’m sure it is very dirty in here.”

“I thought you said it was a little fishing hut.”

“Yes. It belonged to my grandfather’s father. Of course, when he left he had no more use for it, but my uncles still came here.” Amara’s voice stumbled. “Now there is no one to use it.” Robbie hugged her closed and smoothed her hair.

She nestled in. “Tell me about your dream.”

“I dreamt that American troops were driving their jeeps through the marshes. They were coming from Baghdad on their way to Basra and the most direct route was straight through the middle. The jeeps had these pontoons on them that kept them afloat when the water got deep. There was a place in the water where it rose about six inches like it was going over something massive below. The lead jeep got stuck on it. It turned out to be a remnant of one of Saddam’s dams. Everyone had to get out and figure another way across. They unloaded their mashufs and troops started fanning out across the marshes in their canoes. I was watching from the reeds. Somebody came up behind me and grabbed me by the throat. I started choking.  That”s when I woke up.” Robbie rubbed Amara’s arm and gazed into her penetrating eyes.

Amara placed her hand over his heart. “You are safe now. They will not find you until you are ready to be found.”

Robbie kissed the top of her head. She kissed his lips.

“Dawn will soon come,” Amara said. “Let us sleep until it does.”

“Then you can show me where we are.”


At dawn, Robbie and Amara climbed into the mashuf they had borrowed from her uncle, a boat builder whose shop sat at the tip of what remained of the Al Hariz marsh. A mullet, small and bony by any standard, rose to the surface in search of breakfast. Robbie jumped at the splash that signaled its return to safe water.

“It is just a fish,” Amara said, handing Robbie a paddle. “And a small one at that. They are returning now that the dam has been destroyed.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it? I mean, about the dam.” Robbie started to paddle in time with Amara.

“Yes, it is very good. But it is not enough. The Minister of Irrigation estimates that when the dam was breached over one hundred and fifty quadrillion gallons of water flooded back into the channels. This was only enough to return the water to the two closest villages. At one time, there were hundreds of these villages. At this rate it will take a thousand years.”

“Well, can’t they just open another dam?”

“They have opened all the dams. The water is no longer here.”

“Where is it?”

“Still in Syria, and Turkey, being diverted for many types of projects. Agricultural, hydroelectric. Who knows what else? Saddam gave them this water. He stole it from his own people.”

“We’ll get it back.”

“It is much more complicated than that. Here people fight over the right to use the water. It is not so in your country. But still you see the beginnings of it in your American west. I think that one day, people in America will fight over water just as we do.”

The marshes were silent but for the lapping of the water on the shore and the slight rustle of the bulrushes. A fog had settled over the marshes and Robbie wiped at the drops of water that collected on his face. A bullfrog croaked. Robbie jumped, then relaxed.

Amara smiled and turned briefly to look at him. “You never fully get used to the noises that the marshes make. To live here is to constantly be on alert. So my grandfather has told me.”

They rowed together in silence until Amara directed the mashuf through vegetation so dense and intertwined that Robbie felt they were inside a tunnel. When they emerged on the other side, the first rays of the day had filtered through the reeds, creating a mosaic pattern across the surface of the water. A blue heron caught breakfast and retreated to safer ground, flying directly overhead.

“A most beneficent sign,” Amara said, bunching her fingers together and touching them first to her heart, then her lips and finally her forehead. She stopped paddling momentarily and squeezed Robbie’s leg. “There it is. The house of my uncle, Sayyid. We will be safe here.”


Robbie and Amara docked their boat on the small island where another hut stood.

“Who’s there?” said a voice groggy with sleep. Inside the occupants of the house stirred, the first rustling of the day. Amara tied the canoe and grabbed Robbie’s arm just as Sayyid Sahain appeared in the doorway wearing the conventional robe and turban, but no sandals. In the misty morning light, Amara couldn’t clearly see the face of her uncle, still pressed with sleep, his hastily donned turban slightly askew, but she recognized the proud and encompassing stance of her father, and for a moment she believed he walked among them again. The sound of her uncle’s voice, so like her own father’s, did nothing to lessen her joy.

“Who is there?”

“It is me, uncle. Amara.”

“Amara! Is it you? I had word, but I did not dare hope…. God be praised.” Amara’s uncle scrambled down to the dock and grabbed Amara by both elbows before crushing her to his chest in a warm embrace. “God has blessed me once again,” Sayyid said. He held her at arm’s length. “To look at you is to look again upon my brother’s face.” He wrapped an avuncular arm around her and patted her back before releasing her, then turned to Robbie, a question in his eyes.       “And who is it that assures your safe travel?” he asked, sizing Robbie up.

“This is my friend, Robbie, Uncle. He is an American. He wishes to help our people. But first, Uncle, we must assure his safety. He has left his captain without permission.” Sayyid raised his eyebrows in disapproval.

Amara continued. “The Americans believe he is dead. There was a car bombing and…. they did not find him.” Amara bowed her head and clasped her hands together. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I do not mean to bring you trouble.” Sayyid studied Robbie’s face then looked to his niece’s bowed head.

“Amara. You could not bring more trouble than that devil, Saddam, has brought to his own people. Every day I ask God why he has allowed this. But God has turned his face away from us.” He lifted Amara’s chin that she might look him directly in the eyes. “You were always the impetuous one. By the grace of Mohammed, had you been born a boy I believe you would have stopped the devil himself.”

Amara smiled at her uncle and he stroked her cheek.

“Time has taught me many things,” Sayyid continued. “For the memory of your father, but more important, for you, I swear I will keep your friend safe among us until the time he chooses to leave.”

Sayyid turned to Robbie. “Welcome, sahib.” He took Robbie’s hand in one of his and with the other clapped him on the back. “You are safe here.”

“Thank you. . .”

“Call me Uncle as my niece does,” Sayyid said.

“Uncle,” Robbie repeated. Following Amara’s lead, he bowed his head slightly to indicate his respect.

“Come, come,” Sayyid said. “Let us go inside. You will be hungry, yes? We will take a meal together and you will tell me of your plans.”


Inside Sayyid’s wife, Fawzia, was already grinding coffee. Sayyid made the introductions and Amara embraced her uncle’s new wife before the woman retreated to the hearth to prepare a meal worthy of visitors.

“Fawzia is a good woman,” Sayyid said. He directed them to several cushions scattered around a small round table barely a foot off the floor.

“I am sorry for you, Uncle. For my aunt. We had heard, but were unable to make the trip.”

“Thank you, niece.” Sayyid bowed his head and touched his bunched fingers to his heart, mouth and forehead. “She was a very good woman, dead now these five years.”

“How did she die?” Robbie asked.

“From Saddam’s poison water.”

“Saddam poisoned the water? But why is everything not dead?”

“He is the devil,” Sayyid said.

“I thought it was because of the dams,” Robbie said. “I didn’t know he used poison, too.

“He did not poison it with chemicals, but with ideas,” Sayyid said. “And revenge. Revenge for the part my people played in the Shiite uprising in Iran. We are Shiite Muslims. Saddam is Sunni. So he tries to kill us by taking away our water. When the water is not fresh, it dies.”

“You mean it becomes stagnant?” Robbie asked.

“Yes. Stagnant. This water breeds cholera. We have no cure for this disease.” Sayyid’s voice assumed a distant quality.

“When I see the problem, I take her by tarrada.” Sayyid turned to Robbie. “This is my large canoe, much bigger than my mashuf. It is more than thirty-feet. I have six people paddling while I hold her head in my lap. But it is not enough. By the time I see the doctor, he can do nothing. I am too late.” Sayyid wiped at his eyes as if he had an itch. Robbie looked at Amara who put her hands in her lap and bowed her head.

“Saddam made this. He killed my beloved wife when he stops the water with his dams. With his evilness. If he is not the devil himself then he has made a deal with him. This I know.” Sayyid adjusted his turban and straightened his robe. “My people lived here from the beginning of time. Now they live in refugee camps on the borders in Iran.”

“That’s why we’ve come, uncle,” Amara said.

Fawzia appeared with a tray containing three demitasse cups, sugar, spoons, and an ebriki, a small brass pot with a long handle, used to cook the coffee directly over the stove. Steam wafted from the narrow opening of the pot. Fawzia set the tray down and smiled at Amara and Robbie.

“You are hungry?” She brought her fingers to her lips to indicate eating with one’s hands. “You eat now?”

Amara nodded and smiled. Fawzia squeezed Amara’s hand and left.

“She speaks only a little bit English, my wife,” Sayyid explained to Robbie.

Robbie nodded. “I’m sure we’ll manage.”

 to be continued. . .

start with this and we how we got here

copyright 2012

she might catch fire


Pam Lazos

Chapter Sixty-Six

The will had been on file in Kitty’s attorney’s office for years and Bicky had full knowledge of it. He was well aware of the provisions it contained and had pestered Kitty relentlessly after Sonia’s death for her to update the document. Otherwise, he’d argued, the disposition of more than a fortune would be left to the vagaries of Sonia’s will. Bicky was reasonably sure that Sonia’s will left everything to Hart, but he saw no reason to take the chance. Besides, Hart wasn’t blood, and the events of the last few weeks had born that out in crystalline form. Unfortunately for Bicky, Kitty had ignored him, or so he thought, and soon after became sick and since his suggestions angered her so, he ultimately let the whole matter drop. At the time Bicky reasoned that with a little finagling he could fund a buyout of PGWI’s stock using his own assets as collateral and thereby retain ultimate control of Akanabi. But now? The stakes were a good deal higher and though he hated to admit it, there may not be a way to do this deal.

Bicky’s father, that bastard, had set it up so Sonia and Kitty, operating together, could overrule Bicky’s business decisions. Knowing Bicky’s relationship with his wife and what the senior Coleman perceived to be Bicky’s indifference toward his daughter, Bicky’s father made it impossible for him to leave his wife and child without risking the loss of everything. For some reason, Sonia and Kitty never took advantage of their monopoly. Even more amazing, they stayed with him all those years when, had the tables been turned, Bicky would have taken his fifty-one percent and left.

Bicky ran a hand over his stubbled chin and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. The codicil was executed three months after Sonia died. Since Kitty possessed all her faculties up until the end, it would be difficult to argue that Jerry had put her up to it.

“Christ, there’s got to be a way around this mess,” he said out loud. He punched the intercom for Phyllis.


“Can you come here, please?”

“Certainly.” Phyllis was in the door in moments. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know.” He eyed Phyllis for a moment. “I think I need help.” Bicky slumped back in his seat looking older than Methuselah.

“Do you want me to call your doctor.”

“No. Not that kind of help.” Bicky dropped his head to his hands and rubbed his face. His voice cracked. “I just need a friend, is all.”

“Do you have any friends?” Phyllis asked, smiling. Bicky didn’t return the gesture.

“Do you know anything about Kitty and Jerry?”

“You mean, for instance, Kitty was your wife and Jerry has worked for you for about as long as I’ve worked for you, but now he doesn’t?”

“How did you know?” Bicky asked. His face had assumed its mask-like qualities.

Phyllis’s eyes grew wide, but if she had a quip, she kept it to herself, limiting her retort to the obvious. “With so much cabling in this place word travels fast.”

Bicky tossed a copy of Kitty’s will across the desk. “Did you already read this?”

Phyllis stepped forward, reviewed it quickly, and nodded. It was her turn to put on the mask.

“Did you know?” Bicky asked.

“Know what?”

“That they were having an affair?”

“Well, if the question is have I ever see them hiding behind the water cooler, locked in an embrace, then no, I didn’t.”

“C’mon, Phyllis. Cut the sarcasm,” Bicky replied.

“What’s it matter now, Bicky? Kitty’s gone. What would you do with the information?” Phyllis picked at a loose thread on her suit jacket.

“I just want to know, is all.”

“Well, you’re going to have to draw your own conclusions.” She looked at him with an expression that relayed it to be her final word on the matter and stood to go.

“I just want your opinion.” There was a remote quality to his voice, as if he were speaking into a fierce wind that blew all around him,  sending his words to far off places. “Do you know you are the only person in my entire life that’s never judged me,” Bicky said. “Or at least if you did, you kept it to yourself. If I’ve never thanked you before, I’m doing so now.” The words had the desired effect. Phyllis sat down.

“Why did you torture her so much?”

Bicky responded in a voice that belied years of unrequited love. “Because she didn’t love me. And I was too proud to show her why she should. And now, well, all that crap about it being too late would be appropriate here.” Bicky coughed and rubbed his eyes dry. When he spoke again, his voice was level.

“This could ruin me, you know. A hostile take-over. I’ve not made many friends in this industry. I’d be out on my ass faster than stink. And if Jerry and Hart got together….”

“Ah, the truth comes out,” Phyllis said. “Maybe it’s time to take early retirement.” The sarcasm was notably absent.

“Maybe. Just let go of it all.” He traced his finger over the beautiful mahogany desktop. “That’s been my problem all along, you know. Ever since my mother died, I spent my life with my arms wrapped tight around everything I owned, squeezing the air out of it. Even my own wife.”

Phyllis reached across the desk and patted Bicky’s hand.

“I know I wasted a lot of time. Time I can’t get back.” He pulled his hand free and walked to the window. He stared out across Houston’s skyline for several minutes before continuing. “But what am I supposed to do? Roll over and die? Do you really think anyone will remember me?” Bicky slumped back in his chair looking frail and pathetic. Phyllis spoke softly, with tenderness.

“You have resources. Plenty of friends. People with fat checkbooks.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Bicky snapped. Phyllis recoiled as if stung, all the goodwill of the last moments evaporating with a word.

Phyllis stood up and said in ice blue tones: “It’s just an observation.”

“Yeah, well keep your observations to yourself.” Phyllis focused on the back of Bicky’s head.

“I could fight this for years, but he’s still going to win. He’ll bring on witness after witness that says my wife was of sound mind and body when she executed that codicil. Witnesses that will say I was a lousy husband. Hundreds of pages of briefs will be filed and they’ll have life expectancy charts and police testimony and psychological exams. My life will be on complete display for the gossip columnist and at the end of the day, he still wins.”

Bicky rested his forehead against the cool glass and stood as if cast in bronze.

“Well if you have nothing else to say, I have something,” Phyllis said. Bicky didn’t bother to turn around. “I’m tendering my resignation. As of today. I’m giving you two weeks notice.”

Bicky was stricken, a look Phyllis couldn’t see. “Why?” he croaked.

The standard line.  “I want to spend more time with my family.”

He wanted to say to say something to change her mind, tell a joke, rehash the past, anything, but words had abandoned him. He felt the weight of Phyllis’ stare, but the profundity of his misfortunes rooted him to the spot: he couldn’t even turn around. Finally, Phyllis left.

And for the first time in over thirty years, Bicky Coleman was suddenly and completely alone.


Phyllis sat in front of the computer reading her email when Jerry walked into the office, looking drawn. She smiled, stood and walked around to the front of her desk. They hugged, a bit stiff, like old friends who had served in the same war, but hadn’t seen each other since experiencing all the pain and suffering they had learned to forget. When they pulled away, they both looked sad. Jerry nodded toward “the big door,” but Phyllis shook her head.

Jerry walked back out into the hall and returned with a cardboard box filled with keys. “My instructions were to leave these with you.” He set the box on the desk and backed away as if it were something extremely fragile. “Guess that’s it. Thirty years of loyal service,” Jerry said in a voice redolent with sarcasm. He laughed, a dry mirthless sound emanating from his throat, and stared at the box to see if some part of those years would replay before him.

Phyllis touched him on the shoulder and he stared at her so intently she thought she might catch fire. She bristled and looked away, breaking the connection. Jerry laughed, at first a small chuckle which grew into a giggle and then a full-fledged belly laugh, ultimately careening into complete hysteria. Phyllis stared at him in mute horror, then turned and walked to the other side of her desk, her hand on the hidden button underneath. Jerry’s laughter died down until he, too, became silent. If he noticed Phyllis’ hand on the button, he didn’t say.

“I guess you heard about Kitty’s will,” he asked.

Phyllis nodded.

“I didn’t ask her to do that, you know. I never asked her for anything. Except to just leave with me.” Jerry stared at his well-manicured nails, his tone flat and even. “She couldn’t do it. Never could bring herself to leave that son-of-a-bitch. Now she’s gone and left us both.” He looked up at Phyllis without emotion.

“I’m sorry for you.”

“You think I was wrong, don’t you? To love her like that.”

“It’s not for me to say, Jerry. Everybody has to live by the dictates of their own conscience. Otherwise you’re not living, just going through the motions. But since you asked, no, I don’t think you were wrong. Love is never wrong.”

“Maybe if I would have tried harder to convince her.” Jerry shook his head. “It was always because of Sonia, you know. That she would never leave. She didn’t want Sonia to lose out on what Kitty thought was rightfully hers and if the truth came out that…” Jerry stopped, his mouth still open, the unspoken words still on his lips.


“Nothing.” Jerry dropped into a chair as if he were suddenly very tired. “Right now it feels as if my whole life’s been one giant lie.”

“So make it right.”

Jerry nodded, leaving Phyllis with the impression that the words were reaching him only after covering a great distance.

“How do I do that?” he finally said.

Phyllis shrugged. She’d said her peace.

After a minute, Jerry turned to stare at Bicky’s door. “You’re right.” He sighed and heaved himself up. The young, virile man was gone. An old, regretful man had taken his place.



“Always being an ally in the war against tyranny.”

“You’re welcome.”


Hours later, Bicky sat in front of the fire, stone-drunk. He paced the room like a caged animal, wringing his hands in despair. He wailed, a deep, mournful, bellowing sound that started in the pit of his stomach and ascended, higher and higher, until it reached a screeching pitch that even he couldn’t abide. He fell to the floor, covering his own ears, thrashing and hissing at the unseen demons that surrounded him, a man possessed. He banged his head on the floor, a rapid succession of syncopated rhythm. He pulled his body in close and fell over on his side into the fetal position, wrapped his arms around his knees and began to rock like a baby. He cried, using the tears he’d stockpiled for the last thirty years, until he’d drained enough of the agony from his body that he no longer felt like throwing up. Hopelessness was quick to fill the void, however, and he succumbed to the fresh onslaught.

When his body grew tired, he sat up, dried his eyes and cast an appraising glance around a room that for years had been shrouded in egotism and greed. He walked over to the side table and picked up a framed photograph of himself and Kitty on their honeymoon. The tears were back and he was about to scratch them out with his own fingers, but rubbed his eyes sharply instead, and with so much pressure that he experienced a stab of pain, causing him to stumble backwards. He shook his head to clear his vision and Hatred, Anger’s nimble first cousin, flew in, replacing the light. He screamed, raised the photo above his head and threw the picture into the fire. The glass in the metal frame shattered when it landed. Bicky stared after it, momentarily stunned, ready to accuse the perpetrator.

“Aaaaahhhhh,” he yelled, and ran to the fire. The edges of the photograph had begun to singe and without thinking, Bicky reached into the fire with his bare hand, his skin melding with the hot metal. He screamed again, this time from the burns, but he wouldn’t let go of her, never let go . The skin on his fingers began to melt so he dropped the frame. It clattered as it landed on the hardwood floor. He grabbed a pillow from the couch and blotted at the photo. His raw hand had already started to blister. He looked at the appendage as if it belonged to someone else, shook it twice then knelt down, hovering over the photo. He pushed aside the remaining pieces of broken glass with a pen from his pocket and pried the picture free, shoving the ruined frame away with his good hand. He knelt down on the floor, his chest to his legs and leaned in to kiss Kitty’s face. He traced her body with his good fingers, the lovely creme taffeta dress flowing around her like a breeze, and kissed her now browned visage before starting to cry again.


At his apartment, Jerry packed one suitcase with winter clothes and a second one with shorts, T-shirts, suntan lotion and other summer weather sundries. He walked over to the bookshelf and took down a dozen of his favorite titles along with a few he hadn’t read yet and tossed them in the “warm” suitcase. He glanced around the room. Other than the floor-to-ceiling book case that lined one entire wall of his bedroom, there was nothing in this room he wanted.

He sat down on the bed and called Kitty’s lawyer giving him instructions to sell half the Akanabi stock Kitty had left him once the will was probated and to put that money in trust that named PGWI as the recipient. The fund was to be placed under the direction of David C. Hartos with specific instructions to invest the money in either a private or publicly traded company as long as Hart had an affiliation with it. Each year, the dividends earned on such a phenomenal amount of money were to be turned over to PGWI, used to drill wells and build wastewater treatment plants in developing countries all in memory of Kitty Coleman and Jerry Dixon. Should the principal devalue in any given year, the dividend was to be reinvested, thus assuring the principal remained intact.

What to do with the rest of the Akanabi stock was the more difficult question and one he’d have to deal with Bicky directly on. For now he’d instructed the lawyer to hold the stock certificates and gave him power of attorney so Jerry could access the revenue, should it be necessary, from anywhere in the world. Jerry himself had no use for the money. He’d lived a Spartan existence all these years and saved a ton of his own money, because if nothing else, Bicky paid well. And other than the gobs of money he spent on books, Jerry had no real hobbies. For him to get this kind of money now in his life meant nothing. Had he had it when she was alive, well, it may have made a difference. He shook his head. It didn’t help to think about it.

He placed two firearms in the “cool” suitcase. He’d have to notify airport security and show them his permit. Likely it would be no problem as long as the guns were stowed in the cargo hold. He snapped the suitcases shut. Leather bound and heavy, they once belonged to his father. He knew today’s models didn’t take much in the way of coordination to carry and many came on wheels, but he like the weight of them, the feel of the strength in his arms as he hefted them off the bed. He set one down, took a last look around the room, shut the light and headed out to put things right.

 to be continued. . .

start with this and move on

copyright 2012

very far away

flamingoOIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Sixty-Five

Back in Houston, Bicky pulled the article off the fax machine and skimmed it. He huffed and sighed and stared out the bedroom window. He rubbed his head to stave off the headache that seemed inevitable.

“Dammit,” he said to no one in particular. “God dammit.” He dialed Jerry’s number and waited. The phone rang half a dozen times before Jerry picked up.

“I thought I told you to get back east and get those Goddamn kids under control,” Bicky barked into the phone.


“The inventor’s kids! Did you check it out? No. You were too busy dicking around here doing God-knows-what.” Bicky was so angry he was sputtering.

“Kitty died. Remember? You know. Kitty. Your wife, of thirty-seven years. I was here for the funeral,” Jerry said.

“Don’t screw with me, Jerry.”

“I’m not screwing with you, Bicky. I’m telling you that some things are more important than others, which is something you haven’t learned in the last sixty years.”

“I didn’t call you for a psych session. I got a shrink for that. I called you about the kids.”

“I sent somebody. He said there was nothin’ going on.”

“Who the hell’d you send?”

“Guy that used to drive for us.”

“What guy?”

“The guy I fired a few months ago. You know. High strung.”

“You are freaking kidding me. You sent someone who didn’t work for us?”

“He was a good guy. And he had first hand knowledge, and if he got caught, he wasn’t one of us,” Jerry said. “Jesus, I’ll go check it out tomorrow.”

“Forget it. I’ll do it myself.” Bicky slammed down the receiver. He ran his hands through his hair and stared out into the darkness.


Across town, Jerry hung up the phone and rubbed his eyes. An open book lay on the bed next to him and the light was still on. He roused himself and walked to the window. The night spread before him in varying shades of black like a Hollywood wardrobe.

“Damn psychotic son-of-a-bitch,” Jerry murmured.

He scanned the sparse room. A book shelf, filled to overflowing, a night stand and lamp, a single chair, behind him the silhouette of leafless trees. “What the hell am I doing?” He closed the curtain, shut the light and crawled back into bed.


Jerry’s office, located in the basement of Akanabi Oil, was a tech-geek’s delight of an environment, encompassing ten thousand square feet and housing Akanabi’s main frame and various and sundry computer gadgetry. The whir and buzz of computer equipment was so intense that many of the technicians wore earplugs.

At the far end of the room, walled off from the rest of the equipment, was the closed circuitry monitoring station, Jerry’s own personal feifdom. The room had no windows and if not for the door at the far end, would appear to be a wall. Hundreds of cameras graced the offices, hallways, elevators and common areas at Akanabi Oil. Some were in plain view, some were circumspectly installed, all of them were monitored from this room. The cameras were such a ubiquitous part of the decor at Akanabi that after awhile people forgot they were being watched, an important plus from Jerry Dixon’s standpoint. These cameras in the offices of mid-management had originally been installed as a training mechanism.  Surreptitious monitoring allowed suggestions as to tact and style that could be made later without embarrassing the manager in front of the customer.  These had been “disabled” or so the managers thought, and could be brought back online with a few adjustments prior to a meeting should the manager request it.

The managers didn’t know what Jerry knew. The company’s fascination, it’s complete fixation with safety had morphed into something more sinister.  Cameras and listening devices as small as buttons and earplugs graced every office, corridor and waiting area of Akanabi.  The registered number of monitoring devices, about 1341, was more likely twice that many. Jerry kept the real list locked in a vault for which only he and Bicky had the combination.

Some days Jerry would come down to this room simply to watch.  His voyeuristic desire had grown from his abject loneliness. Had you asked him, point blank, whether he was lonely he would have vehemently denied it, but the signs were there, the fastidiousness, the borderline obsessive compulsive behavior traits, the need to control his environment and to have things “just so”.

Kitty had the ability to curtail in him some of his more destructive tendencies simply by being in the room. Yet in the days since her death, he’d felt a welling up of those emotions and was at a loss as to how to channel the energy. He sat, staring at a computer screen, contemplating this very issue when Bicky burst through the door.

Jerry catapulted from his chair, rolled to the floor, drew his gun, released the safety and pointed it directly at Bicky’s head.

“Are you crazy?” he shouted from a crouching position on the floor.

Bicky said nothing, but jumped on Jerry like a feral cat, punching and clawing at his face. Jerry put up his hands to deflect the onslaught, but not before a right hook caught him in the temple. That was the last contact Bicky made. In moments, Jerry reversed positions and had Bicky pinned with a knee on one elbow, his hand holding down the other, the gun pointed at Bicky’s forehead. Jerry hovered above Bicky, relishing the role reversal. He stepped back so Bicky could stand, but offered no hand to help.

“Was that some kind of test?” Jerry laid the gun aside, but did not turn his back to his boss.  Bicky brushed himself off and straightened his suit and tie. He stared at Jerry so ferociously that Jerry’s hand instinctively found his gun. Bicky threw a stack of papers at the ground.

“You’re fired. Collect your stuff. Leave your keys, your combinations, your camera equipment, and all your other stuff with Phyllis. I want you gone by the end of the day. And if I catch you anywhere near here, ever, I’ll rip your balls off with my bare hands.” He stared at Jerry for a few seconds working his jaw as if to get the tension out before speaking again.

“You were like my brother, you little prick.” Bicky spat at the ground, turned on his heel and left.

Jerry stared at the papers on the floor until his vision went soft and he leaned over to pick them up. The top paper was a codicil to the Last Will and Testament of Kitty McCain Coleman. The original will lay underneath. Jerry sat down to read.

The original will gave the portion of Kitty’s estate that she brought with her into the marriage, substantial in its own right, to Sonia. In addition, half the shares of Akanabi left to Kitty by her father-in-law went to Sonia to do with as she pleased. The other half went to The Nature Conservancy with instructions that the stocks be sold and PGWI given the fair market value of them. There were additional provisions on what PGWI should do with the money. Jerry skipped over them and continued, flipping through the document until a specific provision caught his eye. First Bicky, and then Sonia had a guaranteed thirty-day right of first refusal on the PGWI stocks. In this manner, Kitty assured that control of the company stayed within the family should the family still want it. Probably why Bicky agreed to this will in the first place. The mansion, in Kitty’s family for generations, went to Bicky. “Straight forward enough,” Jerry said to himself. He turned to the codicil and what he read made the hair on his arms stand up and his body shudder.

The codicil changed everything. Kitty had left her personal estate — everything that would have gone to Sonia which included a good deal of jewelry and other family heirlooms as well as shares of various stocks and bonds – to Hart. The mansion she left to Bicky. The remainder which consisted solely of Akanabi stock and which should have gone to Sonia and PGWI, now went solely to Jerry with instructions to sell it all and give half the proceeds to PGWI, but only if he was so inclined. Notably absent from the codicil was the provision giving Bicky a thirty-day right of first refusal. The codicil was executed three months after Sonia died. Kitty had never said a word to him.

Jerry looked up from the papers and saw, as if for the first time, the drab, windowless office. Hundreds of images blurred, a thousand sounds merged into an incessant buzzing that seemed bearable only minutes ago, and for the last thirty odd years before that. His eyes followed the bundled cabling, sitting in silence while billions of bytes of information cruised through its wires every hour and he was suddenly very tired.  He inhaled deep and full, his first real breath in decades, but his nostrils were met with the dustiness of a room that never saw daylight and he coughed the breath out, his body repelling it like poison. Jerry thought he could see the rejected breath, little dust clouds riding an imaginary wave of sunlight. The stack of papers in his lap looked very far away, like something on the horizon that you knew was there, but couldn’t quite make out. A giant tear drop fell from each eye and landed neatly on the page, spreading slowly, like a virus.

to be continued. . .

go back and read this

copyright 2012

dangerous beasts

finches audobonOIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Sixty-Four

He had spent every afternoon of the last two weeks brainstorming with Gil and Avery, reviewing plans, dreaming of possibilities, discussing permutations. Pizza and Chinese take-out had been the dinners of choice for the majority of those nights, but on the evening of the thirteenth day, Avery decided to cook. He made a fabulous dinner of moussaka, spanikopita, and Greek salad. They topped it off with a healthy helping of Aunt Stella’s baklava – Aunt Stella adored Hart – and by the end of the night, it seemed that he and Avery had discovered simultaneously what Gil had known all along: Hart was their man.

Back at the hotel, Hart grabbed a Sam Adams from the small refrigerator and sat down at the elegant desk. He drew a crude sketch of the TDU on the small Sheraton notepad, then did some calculations regarding the square footage needed to house the machine. In order to bring investors to the table, he’d have to sell the complete package, not just the conversion from trash to oil, but on to refined oil and gas. The problem was going to be with the refining.

Refineries were dangerous beasts. To convince investors to ante up for the revolutionary TDU was one thing. There were more than a handful of nouveau riche with not only the collateral, but the common sense to invest in such ground-breaking technology. But would those same people also wish to invest in the construction of an oil refinery to complement the TDU.  The reduction in air quality, the potential for spills and explosions, the astronomical construction costs, and the staggering cost of liability insurance were all good reasons not to build a new facility. The last new refinery built in the U.S. was in 1976 in Louisiana. Would anyone really want to start again now?

Hart stared out at the shimmering city lights, his mind ticking through a list of possibilities when a broad smile crossed his lips.

“Of course.”

Hart took his Sam Adams and the newspaper article about Gil and the TDU and headed down to the front desk in his bare feet. He handed the paper to the concierge and wrote down a fax number.

“Would you fax this for me? Now if possible.”

“Certainly, sir.” The concierge retreated to the back room. Hart stood at the counter and drank his beer, tapping his foot nervously. The concierge returned in a few minutes and handed Hart the newspaper article along with a confirmation sheet.

“Thanks,” he said and returned to the bank of elevators.


Minutes later, back in his room, Hart telephoned Houston. Bicky picked up on the fourth ring.

“Hello,” Bicky croaked.

“Am I waking you up?” Hart belatedly checked the clock. It was 2 AM.

“No, I’m generally up at this hour,” Bicky replied, his voice thick with sarcasm.

“Did you check your fax?”

“As is my habit in the middle of the night. What’s up?”

“Well, I’ve been officially on sabbatical for two weeks and I’ve already found what will take us to the next level, economically, and environmentally. Want to hear about it?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Everybody’s got a choice.” Hart said. Bicky took so long to reply that Hart thought he’d fallen back to sleep.

Finally, Bicky sighed. “Go ahead.”

“How about this? A machine that converts trash into oil.”

Bicky began a hack so violent, Hart had the hold the phone away from his ear.

“Hey, man, are you all right? Drink some water or something,” Hart said. He heard the phone drop onto the night stand as the cough receded into the background. After several minutes, Bicky returned.

“What the hell did you say?”

“I said, how about a machine that converts trash, you know, from a landfill, into petrol? Would you invest in that? And before you say another word, believe me, this is for real. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“How? Where are you?”

“In Philadelphia?”

“I thought that machine was south of the city, out in Delaware County?”

“Huh? You heard of it before?”

“Ah – something about it, but I’m not sure from who.”

Hart’s eyes narrowed and his nose twitched involuntarily, probably because his body smelled a rat, but his brain couldn’t make the connection.

“You saw this machine?” Bicky asked.

“I did.”

“You talked to the inventor?”

“Yep. Been hanging out with them for the last two weeks. Well, the actual inventor is dead. A tragedy in every sense of the word.”

“How’d you find out about it?” Bicky’s voice was coarse with sleep, which served to obfuscate his impatience so Hart didn’t notice.

“I read a newspaper article on the plane. It was luck, I think. Something weird.” Hart squinted into the past, trying to piece the events of that first day in Philly together, but like fragments of a dream, they scattered, leaving nothing but their fuzzy imprints.

“Bicky, I know you need time to think about it, but the implications…. This is beyond breakthrough.”

“I think you’re cracking up. You better come back to work before you go over the edge.”

“Listen. This machine eats trash. We install machines like this across the country and not only are our landfill problems eradicated, we are no longer dependent on foreign oil. And I’m not talking about in situ burning that releases harmful carcinogens into the air. And not trash to steam. We’re not replacing one problem with another. We’re solving two problems at once. It even helps with greenhouse gasses since that trash won’t be sitting in the landfill breaking down for a million years.”

“Yeah, yeah. You said this was in the paper?”


“Which paper?”

“The Philadelphia Inquirer. Go check your fax machine.”

“That means a lot of people know about it already.”

“It doesn’t matter. This kid wants to work with me. We. . .bonded.”

“Oh, Christ. Now I see where this is going. You don’t have any kids of your own so you’re out looking for some without parents.”

“That’s not it,” Hart said. “I got the feeling that he chose me, but how, I’d be hard-pressed to say.” Hart took another swig of his second Sam Adams and sat back in his chair. “If you think about it, you really can’t write a check fast enough.”

“Did you try buying him out? The board will want complete ownership.”

“We can’t buy him out, Bicky. He’s only ten.”

“Ten! Does the phrase ‘candy from a baby’ mean anything to you?”

“His father invented the machine.”

“So you said.”

“I did? I didn’t think I said that.”

Bicky started coughing again, so Hart waited until he finished.

“The kid idolized his father. He’s tweaked this machine to maximum efficiency.  It’s . . . well it’s a beautiful thing.”

Bicky sighed. Hart could sense the conversation was winding down.

“We don’t need any investments. We’re making enough money on the product we have.”

“You’re being short-sighted. What happens when your supply dries up?”

“It’s not going to dry up anytime soon. The Middle East has plenty of oil.”

“It’s going to dry up, Bicky. Maybe not in your lifetime, but probably in mine, and definitely by the next generation.”

Bicky was silent for a minute. “I don’t have any grandkids. What the hell’s it matter about the next generation?”

Hart felt the barb in the pit of his stomach. “Kids or grandkids, we have a moral obligation.”

“Hey, maybe we’ll find a cure for AIDS while we’re at it,” Bicky snarled.

Hart almost hung up the phone, but tried one more time. “Just think about it. From where we sit, with our dwindling resources, this invention rivals the Internet.”

“Shut up, already. You’re sounding like a National Geographic article. When are you going to stop worrying about everyone else and start worrying about yourself?”

“When you stop worrying about yourself and start worrying about everyone else.”

“Very funny.” Bicky coughed again. “I’ll send somebody down to look at it.”

“Don’t send somebody down. I’m already down.”

“You quit.”

“I’m on sabbatical, remember?”

“Did you even ask him about selling?”

“They’re not selling.”

“I just want to know if you asked.”

“Someone needs to help these kids, Bicky. Both their parents are gone.”

“So are mine, but you don’t see me crying.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Hart said, utterly exasperated.

“All right. Truth be told, I’m not interested. Now can I go back to sleep?”

Hart’s anger rifled through the phone like machine gun fire. “Just so we’re clear. I’m going to get this thing built, with or without you, and when it’s done, my company’s stock is gonna shoot so high you’ll need a telescope to see me in the night sky.” Hart could hear Bicky breathing into the phone, but no words were forthcoming. “Whatever. Go back to sleep. You always have been anyway.”

“Goddamn it!” Bicky barked. “What are you going to do? Flood the market with Akanabi?”

Hart hoped his silence conveyed the fact that he was smiling.

“Go ahead, you little prick. I can withstand your assault, you stupid. . . .”

Hart held the phone away from his ear so he didn’t hear Bicky’s last insult.

“You hear me, Hart?” Bicky screamed. Hart caught the echo.

He balanced the receiver on his index finger and watched it sway back and forth like the scales of justice. He could hear Bicky’s disembodied voice yelling after him, his tirade continuing unabated. With his free hand, Hart lifted the phone and dropped it in its cradle. He sighed, like a man who has just taken his last bite of a memorable meal, sat back and folded his hands over his stomach. After allowing several seconds for it to disconnect, he took the receiver off the hook, and laid it on the table. A minute later his cell phone started ringing. He switched the ringer to mute and opened another beer.

to be continued. . .

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