Kids Are Resilient

“But I don’t want to go see Daddy,” the 6-year-old girl in pigtails and Hello Kitty swimsuit said to her mother. “I’m scared.”

“I know sweetie,” her mother, a woman named Amy, told her. “But there’s nothing to be scared of, and daddy still loves you. He’ll be waiting for you at his pool. Now go back to the girl’s locker room and get dressed for the trip.”

The girl turned and walked back toward the pool clubhouse, sobbing.

“Poor dear,” said one of the other women sunning herself.

“Tell me about it,” said Amy. “He’s such an idiot. I don’t blame her for not wanting to see him. Not like this one,” she said, indicating a tall muscular man walking toward the fence as she picked up one of several glass pitchers full of iced tea and began pouring some into a red plastic cup.

The group of women in their thirties and forties sat around a large table under an umbrella at the neighborhood pool talking and laughing while selected songs popular in the early 2000s played softly over the pool’s sound system. Most of the women were fit and wearing flattering bikinis with sheer wraps around their waists and large white and pink hats with wide, floppy brims. They occasionally answered questions shouted by the kids in the pool or shouted instructions to them. They also frequently turned to look out on the playground outside the pool’s safety fence where their husbands and boyfriends surrounded by open toolboxes worked on some kind of large see-saw on the playground. Occasionally, one of the men would break off and walk over to the fence where one of the women would pour him some tea.

“Got any beer in there?” the man asked with a smile as he waited for Amy to finish pouring.

“Oh you just hush, Jack Allenby!” his wife scolded as she passed him the cup over the fence. “You know the pool rules.”

“Then how about taking your top off?” he said with a playful leer.

“You’re horrible!” she said, laughing in mock outrage.

“Newlyweds!” one of the other women said. “Sickening!” she continued with mock disgust.

“Hey, watch this!” a young boy shouted from the diving board. Amy, Jack, and all of the adults turned to look as he took a few steps and bounced hard on the end of the board which flexed deeply under his weight before tossing him high the air over the deep end of the pool. The boy successfully performed a full if somewhat awkward flip and entered the water feet-first.

“Nice!”, “Atta boy” came shouts from the playground. The women all clapped enthusiastically.

“That was awesome, Joey,” his mother shouted. “Your best yet. Keep practicing for when it really counts!”

The young boy beamed and gave a thumbs up sign before diving under the water. The women laughed uneasily.

“What a great kid,” one of the other moms said. “I sure wish my Zane had his work ethic.”

Jack tilted the cup and swallowed the last of the tea. He handed the cup back over the fence to his wife as the moms grew silent.

“How is Zane doing, Janelle?” Jack asked. “I guess I need to get back up to Children’s Hospital to see him.”

“Oh he’d love that,” Janelle replied. “He’s got a few more days in traction, then on to physical therapy. But at least he’ll get to come home.”

Jack smiled and nodded before walking back to work on the playground equipment.

The moms likewise agreed amongst themselves that that was a good thing, and they all smiled reassuringly. All but one, that is. That mother wore a lacy green one-pice swimsuit and had her natural Auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail under a large straw sunhat sporting a pink hibiscus flower. She stared at the children in the pool uneasily and sipped from a plastic tube protruding from a large insulated bottle. Everyone knew there was white wine in the bottle. They knew because each of them had often used the same trick.

“It’s going to be fine, Miranda,” Amy called to her.

Miranda’s head rolled slightly from side to side as she nodded silently.

Just then the cell phone on the faux-thatch lounge chair lit up and began vibrating. Miranda’s hand trembled as she picked it up and accepted the call. She held the phone to her ear.

She turned toward the other women. The men on the playground had stopped working and were looking in her direction. “It’s Jimmy’s dad,” she said, her face ashen and devoid of expression. “Jimmy’s coming home.”

“Out of the pool, kids!” Amy yelled. “Jimmy’s coming home! Let’s get ready!”

The kids climbed out of the pool and ran into the clubhouse where they all lined up shoulder to shoulder at the glass wall overlooking the pool and looked up in the direction their parents and parents’ boyfriends and girlfriends were looking.

The children began shouting and cheering as the object came into view, descending quickly from the air, a gray bundle that suddenly dropped and skidded across the diving board, slamming into the fence. Miranda screamed and vomited in her chair, her body shaking. The women rushed to her as the children poured out of the clubhouse racing for the pool area where the men were also rushing to the motionless bundle.

The boy lay crumpled against the fence, the helmet and full face mask he was wearing cracked in several places, and the thick, padded suit torn and bloody.

“He’s unconscious,” one of the men announced. “Broken leg, possibly wrist. Looks like he lost a couple of teeth.”

The women consoled Miranda. “It could have been much worse,” Amy said reassuringly, but Miranda couldn’t hear her. She had picked up the phone and was screaming at her ex-husband. Amy tried to take the phone away from her when Jack walked over and put his arms around his wife and pulled her to the side.

“Catapult’s ready,” he told her. “It’s time for Hailey to go see her dad.”

Amy stiffened. She watched the men carry the little girl to the catapult as the men took turns cranking the tension wheel. Wrapped in what they were calling the “travel outfit”, the little girl’s sobs were muffled by the thick helmet. A small trickle of urine trickled from under the thickly padded pants leg onto the dirt under the catapult.

“Hey, the cuff isn’t tucked,” one of the men pointed out when he saw the drops of urine hitting the dirt. The oversight was quickly corrected and they positioned the trembling girl in the thickly padded suit carefully on the seat. It was an unspoken relief that the suit was so thick that it muffled the sounds the kids made from inside and similarly made it difficult to detect the children’s movements.

Quickly and silently, Jack Allenby nodded to the other men, and when they all looked down at the girl he struck the tension lock with a sledgehammer. The arm snapped forward flinging the girl in a high arc in the direction of her father’s house nearby, her muffled screaming decreasing as she gained elevation. Her mother, Amy, buried her face in her hands and sobbed for as much as a minute until her own phone began to ring.

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Class Reunion

When Rod arrived at the country club where his twenty-fifth high school reunion was taking place, the party was on the verge of winding down. His showing up more than fashionably late with a woman just ten years older than they had been when they graduated in 1984 seemed to focus everyone’s attention on the attractive couple. That–combined with the fact that no one had really seen or heard from him since then–drew many pairs of bloodshot eyes framed with drooping lids above and loose, sagging bags below in his direction.

“Rex returns!” shouted a portly man in blue seersucker jacket and pants paired with a  pink golf shirt. He rushed over to greet Rod and his date.

Rod smiled down at him and shook his hand. “Indeed,” he said. “How are you, Chas?”

“You know me,” Chas replied, drunkenly mumbling and slurring his words. “Chash-tashtic as always!”

Rod smiled warmly at his old friend. Chas was sweating so hard it had soaked his shirt and was even coming through the thin seersucker. “This is Lara,” he said, introducing his companion who exchanged a handshake and pleasantries Chas.

“So what’s with this ‘Rex’ business?” Lara, a petite, girlish blonde with vivid blue eyes asked. “Something I should know about?”

“Oh I’m sure you know!” Chas exclaimed. He winked at the couple. “I gave him that nickname even though hish real name shays it all.” He winked again although it may have been an involuntary reaction to the sweat dripping off his brow and running into his eyes. “King of all swordsmen with the king of swords, Rex. How is ol’ Rex these days, podna?”

“Easy there, bud,” Rod said, followed by a stern chuckle. “Time and place was never your forté.”

Lara giggled just as a short, stocky brunette woman walked up, seemingly mesmerized by Rod’s presence.

“You remember my wife, Shally, right, Rod?” he asked in a more threatening and demanding tone. “I’m sure you do.”

“Of course,” replied Rod. “Although I didn’t know you two were married. Congratulations.”

Sally stared at Rob and seemed to say “Hello” shyly, but he didn’t see her mouth move.

Lara noticed it, too. “How did you do that?” she asked, but Sally just stared and smiled. Suddenly a stream of words, much louder now, began pouring forth from Sally’s direction yet her mouth remained closed and still.

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote…”

“Great!” shouted Chas as a crowd began to form. “Just fucking great!”

“That’s the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales!” someone shouted. “We had to memorize it in tenth grade!”

“…and bathed every veyne in swich licour…” continued the recitation from between Sally’s legs.

“Is that coming from her, her…nether regions?” a thin woman with leathery skin asked politely.

“Oh yeah,” Chas exclaimed. “King over there gave her a ride home one night in tenth grade when I had to go help pull my brother’s truck out of a mud hole.”

“Bethany? Bethany Summerlin?” Rod asked the thin woman. “That you?”

She smiled. “Hello, Rodney,” she said. “It’s Taylor now. You remember Seth Taylor?”

“Sure I do,” Rod replied. “I–”

But he stopped in mid-sentence as Bethany shuddered. Her body shook as they all began hearing a loud and energetic rendition of the Cyndi Lauper song, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” coming from below Bethany.’s waistline As with Sally, she was just smiling and staring.

What seemed at first like random murmurs spreading across the banquet hall slowly grew louder. Rod and Lara looked around the room. Most of the men in the room–who also happened to be married to most of the women–stood speechless, their mouths ajar and jaws dropping as their wives smiled at Rod while their vaginas delivered performances of fight songs, school assignments, and what sounded like the emphatic observations and exclamations of NASCAR commentators.

“That’s the 1984 Iron Bowl! Our senior year!” one man shouted at his wife, a fit, fake redhead with large plastic tits. “We started dating when we were juniors!”

Another man heard “Just the Two of Us” by Grover Cleveland blaring loudly from his wife’s genitalia and simply wept. “That was our song,” he said to her plaintively, mournfully, his face twisted in abject misery. “My God! We played that at our wedding!”

A few men, sobbing deeply, walked over to the bar and started drinking, tossing back shots of whatever was close, their shoulders slumped, heads down as they poured one shot after another. Enraged, the rest screamed at their wives before turning en masse like a school of fish or a flock of birds and advancing on Rod and Lara.

Running for their lives, Rod and Lara squeezed past the ornately furnished tables and pushed through the double doors of the grand entryway and sprinted for Rod’s Audi, running for their lives with the mob of his former classmates, wild-eyed and howling like coyotes, just steps away. Rod hit the ignition and stomped the gas pedal as the back window was smashed and chunks of safety glass the size of pea gravel tumbled into the back seat. Rod steered the car directly across the flower bed in front of him and over the curb, taking the quickest route directly up the street quickly increasing the distance between them and the crazed pack of screaming cuckolds.

“You fucked them all in high school then?” Lara asked as gunshots echoed far behind them. “All those women? All of them?”

Rod checked the rearview mirror and shrugged. “The pussy never forgets,” he said as they sped away into the night.

###

 

 

The Coach: Bath Talk Therapy

Trent and Mrs. Trent lay at opposite ends of the deep, wide soaking tub, the scent of lavender and vanilla bubble bath encompassing them and the mounds of bubbles. Trent’s eyes were wide open while Mrs. Trent lay back, lower in the water, the back of her head resting on a thick towel on the edge of the tub.

The marriage had been rocky from the beginning and their tribe suggested they discuss their problems in the tub surrounded by candles and gradually move the conversation from talking out their grievances to flirty, sexual talk. Just as she was beginning to call him a fucking dork and he was going to ask her where her mind had been, Trent realized he had to take charge here and lead his wife, so he started talking a little shit to get her in the mood.

“Uh, say that again?” Mrs. Trent said as she flicked at a mound of bubbles floating on the surface with her toe.

“I’m in this, baby,” Trent replied. “Whatever happens, happens.”

“Mmm,” Mrs. Trent responded. “Such a bad boy,” she said.

“The baddest, baby,” he said. “And our family is the baddest, too.”

“Ahhh,” moaned Mrs. Trent. “Yessssss.”

Trent could see her pelvis gyrating somewhat beneath the water as the mounds of bubbles seemed to grow larger and thicker. Something seemed off to him. He didn’t expect her to be moaning like that until he started the dirty talk.

A bubble popped on the surface of the tub and released a voice that said, “I like being bad, too.”

Trent sat up quickly. “Say, babe,” he said. “Did you hear that?”

“You said you like being bad,” she answered, her eyes still shut, her head still back, her breathing growing deeper, heavier, raspier.

“But I didn’t say it,” Trent said, a concerned look on his face. “A bubble said it.”

Mrs. Trent giggled. “You’re so kinky,” she said. “Just think if these bubbles were alive!”

“We are,” two popping bubbles said in unison. Upon hearing them, Trent began pushing mounds of bubbles aside, trying to see down into the bathwater.

“How did you do that?” Mrs. Trent asked. She giggled some more.

“I didn’t do anything,” Trent insisted, getting ever more agitated. “They did. Goddammit!”

“They who?” Mrs Trent asked, her voice growing deeper, throatier. “The bubbles?” She shifted slightly and moaned again. Her knees broke the surface of the water as she bent her legs, mounds of bubbles growing where she lay.

The motion of her legs sent more bubbles skating across the surface of the water, popping as they collided with the edge of the tub and each other.

“You’re my pretty whore,” one bubble remarked. “Such a good girl for daddy!” said another.

“How are you doing that oh my god!” Mrs. Trent gasped. Where her arms and hands before were simply resting along the tub’s edge, she was now starting to grip the edge, the muscles in her slender arms becoming more flexed, more pronounced. A shudder went through her body, stirring up even more bubbles sliding everywhere across the bathwater. “I’ve never felt this before, honey!”

Trent ignored her and began popping bubbles. “We might need to call it a night before we prune,” he suggested. It seemed that the more he popped, the more were stirred up. And of course they spoke as he poked and flicked them making them burst.

“Shaved pussy!” one said. “Check those lips! It’s like Arby’s down there,” said another. “Mmmm big brown nipples!” said still another.

“Goddammit!” Trent yelled. “This is spiritual warfare!” He slapped at the suds with his hands, small suds clinging to the dark hair on his knuckles. They had high pitched noises and although he couldn’t make out everything they said, he could tell they were taunting him. To make matters worse, the growing number of voices from the bubbles cheering each other on as Mrs. Trent began spasming and gasping with pleasure sounded like the roar of the crowd at the Super Bowl.

“I will defend this family!” Trent shouted as he pulled the plug and the water began draining from the soaking tub, taking the suds with them.

“Gah…fuck oh my… fuck,” she began mumbling but it devolved into high-pitched whimpers and gurgling noises. When Mrs. Trent ultimately climaxed for the last time that night her scream sounded like a response to such a violent attack that their children began pounding on the door, crying.

By the time the police got to the house, he had smashed every tub in the house with a large cast-iron dumbbell.

Later, Trent would tell his court-appointed anger specialist that he had been temporarily blinded by rage. The counselor suggested that he just had soap in his eyes. Trent called him a degenerate and punched him repeatedly in the head until two security guards and several samaritans pulled him off. He dreaded prison but was thankful that, like the county jail, there were no bathtubs, only showers.

###

The Degenerate’s Cookbook: Winter Interlude

I left the Flamingo a few hundred up and headed for the Cosmopolitan looking for a hot table or maybe an easy blowjob. It had been a full day of blackjack for me with a few breaks for food and naps. Having a good time but the smell of alcohol and stale food and weed on the strip was starting to get to me. My watch and an index card were helping me keep my bearings. No matter where I was I knew the time and my current balance even though I’d left my phone in my room. Vegas is no place to carry a phone.

The Vegas strip is a prime launch pad for the new year because there is not a new year there, not really because Vegas has one rule: everything, all the time. My practice has been to arrive sometime between the second and the fourth because the revelers have mainly left and the crowds are thinner for a few days until the Consumer Electronics Show gets started.

I like changing casinos around two a.m. if it’s raining because with moisture hitting my glasses the neon spatters and everything else is dingy and gray like a cyberpunk novel. Things get trippy even if you’re sober. Those weak gin and tonics I get at the tables are just rituals now. The play is the thing and, like music and women, can’t really be properly enjoyed if you’re too far gone no matter what the hippies say. I’ve always preferred reality straight. It’s always proven weirder and more fun that drugs but that’s me and I was raised that a man never gets fucked up in public.

Past the holidays Vegas is getting back to its usual self. The nonstop action may be designed to extract as much money from you as possible in your time there but so what? The purpose of nature is to simply help you die and recycle your protein yet we go hunting and fishing and camping and hiking all the time. Life wants to kill you, motherfucker. Adapt or die, but have your fun.

My first such kick-off like this happened by accident. It was the year I was still married when I woke up New Year’s Day but wasn’t when I went to sleep New Year’s Eve. It so happened I wound up in Vegas on business just after New Year’s, my first time ever in Vegas, knowing I was on the road to divorce and just edging into my late forties.

Vegas is not the love of my life but we definitely clicked for three days. By then the sensory overload was getting to me and I was for some weak, unfathomable reason missing the wife who I’d just spent my last New Year’s with. After the split I’d spent a year traveling figuring out the best recipe for my own particular brand of degeneracy through trial and error. Despite a productive trip to Atlantic City that summer, something was missing, s Vegas made it back on the calendar for the next year and now every year, just a few days, alone, always alone, just me and the blackjack dealers.

A congenial fellow, far more than most on the strip, in a porkpie hat hawking a strip club stepped up and said he could tell I was the “mayor of titty town” and I needed to make haste to his establishment if I knew what was good for me. I explained to him that I was in fact the Governor of said province but there were plenty of remarkable mammaries back home but there was no blackjack there. “Ok well you know where to find me, Governor,” he called after me as I headed up the steep steps to the pedestrian bridge.

“I got weed, coke, whatever you need,” a fast-talker pitched to a group of young men just ahead of the overweight Midwestern couple waddling in front of me high over Las Vegas Boulevard. They were middle-aged and shocked. Shocked! The wife grabbed her husband’s pudgy bicep that was challenging the seams of his polo shirt and said, “Oh my God! Carl! Drugs. I just can’t believe that.”

To his credit, Carl ignored the drugs, and her.

I felt better the moment I stepped into the sanitized whorehouse feel of The Cosmpolitan, but it was short-lived. Another middle-aged couple with presumably their three twenty-something children clustered around the giant chair shaped like a woman’s stiletto near the upper entrance from the skywalk. The wife waved an iPhone at me as I passed and asked me if I would take their picture as if this were Disney which, in a way, it is. What surprises me most about Vegas isn’t the undercurrent of degenerate fun but the packs of families and retirees waddling around. “We brought our kids to Vegas to teach them how to remain upstanding citizens by engaging their lasciviousness vicariously, like we do,” these people seemed to be saying. “Better character through voyeurism.” So now they want a family picture in a giant fuck me heel, and they want me to take it.

I shook my head ‘no’ and kept walking, caught the escalator down.

Hitting the casino floor I made my way to the blackjack pit and settled into first base at a twenty-five dollar table with one of those shitty continuous shuffle machines. The dealer was chatty but not too chatty and I was winning modestly but steadily until four women, one ancient and wobbly drunk, and three in their twenties, approached the table. The old woman had gray skin and quickly grabbed the stool next to mine and made a dumb joke about getting to first base which I couldn’t quite make out anyway.

The dealer carded the girls and two of them had to leave for being underage. The one remaining sat in the middle a couple seats down from the old woman. Both women placed cash on the table and the dealer began counting it out.

“It’s fate,” the old woman said drunkenly. “I’m here to bring you luck.”

“Bad or good?” I asked.

“More like naughty or nice,” she said flirtatiously as she put a cigarette in her mouth.

“Light me?” she asked, her head wobbling, then continued, “Come on baby light my fire.”

“Not a smoker,” I said.

She found a lighter in her purse and lit her own cigarette. The waitress came by and I ordered a gin and tonic. The old woman asked for the same and leaned into me. “How’s the table?”

“Level,” I said. “Sturdy.”

“Those girls all work for me,” she said. “We’re here on business.”

“Adult industry?” I asked with a smirk.

She grabbed my arm and shook it. “Behave, you,” she said. “Marketing.”

I shrugged. “Same thing really.”

She laughed. “I like you. You’re bad. Are your arms really that hard?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “It’s an act.”

She looked me in the and chuckled a bit. “I bet you think you’re funny.”

I shrugged and focused on cards. Honestly, I briefly considered it as a novelty, as something to keep the weirdness going. For the story, in a way, but I’m no post-modernist and this was my fucking dick after all. Self-referential cringe behavior even justified as a by-product of some half-assed attempt at New Journalism because you read too much Hunter Thompson as a lad was no excuse, and an easy blowjob from some boomer was not at all what I had in mind. There would be nothing easy about that, I cautioned myself. You’re here to play, not face fuck someone’s grandma. Have some standards, man.

After a few hands it was clear the cards were no longer falling well. The younger chick kept asking for help with her hands and the old lady was telling her wrong but I was keeping it to myself. I would stroke my chips or focus on my drink while she was correcting herself after it was too late to change back while the girl looked at me for confirmation. I briefly thought about moving over to the other side of the old woman so that I was between them both, but I was here to play and while I don’t always win I am a disciplined player. The old one finally admitted she was “a little tipsy” and began deferring to me to help out. Having lost the modest gains I had made before the women sat down, I decided this was my cue, and pushed my chips toward the dealer to color up.

The dealer consolidated my chips and gave me a purple and a few blacks.

“Where’s you staying?” the old woman slurred as I turned to go.

“Guess,” I replied and headed for the cashier’s window.

***

By midnight I was chasing losses in a hand-dealt two-deck game at The Cromwell. Far from putting me out of sorts where lust was concerned, the old lady’s advances kept me thinking in that direction. The Cromwell’s attempt at evoking old-school Vegas made me start thinking about hookers again. Red carpet and dark wood, some brass here and there. Some leather, too, and the strong smell of something like fake strawberry car freshener. Still, playing two-deck in that atmosphere with the crowd rapidly dwindling at this time of night was a nice change of pace, so I decided to just play out my last few chips, take the loss if need be, and make it up later. I was tired and hungry and getting horny. Sleep, a sandwich, or sex, at least one of the three was what was called for. Since I didn’t actually want to go to sleep yet, and since no enthusiastic women were around, I moved on to food.

As it would happen, as it always seems to happen, I met a couple of drunk chicks in their early 30s while grabbing some late night food after a long day. A blonde in tight jeans and knee boots, and a brunette in white spandex and oversized pink sweater. Not hookers, I thought, but I couldn’t put it past them. Strippers working the gray area for plausible deniability, maybe? They weren’t bad but had that cynical edge that is not at all feminine and suggested the same number of years spent on the cock carousel that they’d spent in school. I really wasn’t here for this but, again, it was after midnight and they weren’t bad even though they were loud and stupid and talking too loud about venereal disease, about the clap. I decided to keep talking with them and see if they sobered up once their food came, but everyone’s food was a long-time coming. Unlike the shit tests.

“It’s kind of creepy that you sat so close to us,” the blonde said to me.

I smirked. “It’s kind of creepy that y’all are making a mess and talking about the clap,” I replied.

“Y’all?” she said. “Redneck!”

“Only on Friday night,” I answered.

They glared at me. I couldn’t tell if they were more drunk or confused.

“You’re kind of a dick, aren’t you?” the brunette finally said.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “A big one.”

“You have a big dick?” the blonde said, leaning over the table to look into my lap.

“There’s one way to find out,” I replied, “but not if you have gonorrhea.”

“Oh jush kidding about that,” the brunette said. “We’re in Room 1719.”

“Oh my god, bitch!” the blonde said. “No she wasn’t. See?” At that, the blonde reached into the brunette’s purse and showed me the gonorrhea prescription. She said it was foreplay. I was slightly drunk and my food was ready. I picked it up at the end of the bar and stayed there to eat it, realizing I almost paid a very high price for a sandwich.

As I was finishing up the sandwich and chips, one of the girls knocked a beer bottle off of their table and it broke on the floor, glass everywhere and foamy beer fizzing. They immediately began harassing the dude who went over to clean it up. And that is how foreplay becomes floorplay, I thought as I signed the check and headed for the door.

Back on the strip, well-fed, non-fucked, and a cold drizzle at 2 am. Rain misting my glasses distorting the bright lights so that it was Starry Night everywhere I looked.  Braced by the unexpected chill, a new plan began to form. Fuck sleep, I thought. And fuck hookers, which amused me. I can get laid back home. I can sleep when I’m dead. Time is irrelevant and calendars are for suckers. I was there to play.

###

The Luckiest Guy in the World

Niles inspected himself in the bathroom mirror while he brushed his teeth. Was that a zit? he wondered. Goddammit! He rummaged in the vanity drawer until the found his concealer and dabbed some on the growing pimple. This would be his seventeenth date with Lily and he was certain she would open her shirt for him this time. He wasn’t about to let anything queer the deal.

“What the fuck? Are you putting on fucking makeup, dude?” asked Evan, one of Niles’ roommates. His face suddenly popped up behind Niles in the mirror. He tilted his head back, drained his beer can, and burped as he crushed the can in his fist. When Niles didn’t answer, Evan asked, “What’s tonight’s bribe going to be?”

“It’s not a gosh darn bribe!” Niles insisted. “We have rapport. She deserves to be treated like the goddess she is. Besides, it’s a sorority formal. Needs to be a little special.”

“Dude, you haven’t even fucked her yet,” Evan yelled from the kitchen where he was getting a fresh beer from the fridge.

Niles smiled. “Maybe not,” he said. “But when I do, it’ll be glorious.”

“Faggot,” Evan said, then belched again.

***

Niles parked the rented Mercedes on the street near the sorority house and walked to the door. He was careful not to let the bouquet of flowers he was carrying brush the fabric of his suit. He wanted each petal to remain unbroken and glistening with the droplets he’d misted on them with a spray bottle before he drove over.

Inside, Lily was already coming down the stairs, those slightly pointed, pouty breasts he couldn’t stop thinking about bouncing beneath the thin, tight material of the pale pink formal gown clinging tightly to her tiny waist and flat stomach. He smiled. Stunning! he thought. Benefits of being a college gymnast. And no bra! Got to be a good sign.

“Hello, Niles,” she said when she reached the bottom of the steps. She briefly and stiffly hugged him. He kissed her on the cheek.

“You look beautiful, Lily. Just beautiful.” He handed her the bouquet.

“Thanks you so much. Such pretty roses,” she said. “But you remember what I said right? Just friends?”

“Lily, I think you need to know how I feel about you,” Niles said boldly.

“I do, Niles,” she said. “You’ve made that very clear. But you know I see you as a good friend. A true friend. Why can’t that be good enough?”

Niles stood there and looked at her breasts testing the fabric. Those fucking tits! he thought. All he could think about was grabbing the top of the shoulderless gown and pulling it down, releasing those magnificent tits and lubing them up by licking them before titty-fucking her like there was no tomorrow. Maybe if I walk away, she’ll chase me now, he thought.

“It’s just not,” he finally said.

“I understand, Niles. I do,” she replied.

Goddammit! he screamed silently to himself. She doesn’t give a shit! He turned to go.

“Uh, Niles,” she said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

He felt his heart quicken. Holy shit! he thought. It’s working! She really does want me after all! He turned quickly to face her, his smile wide, his face beaming.

“I still need a ride to the the dance,” she said. “Would you mind dropping me there?”

Niles’ heart sank. He held the door for her on the way out, so focused on saving face that he didn’t notice that the flowers he gave her had been placed upright in the big brass trash can that served as an umbrella holder in the foyer.

“Hey,” she said as they made their way toward the street. “Is that a Mercedes?”

After an awkward conversation during the drive over, Niles entered the slow-moving car line at The Coventry Inn and Club and inched his way with the traffic toward the covered entrance. As they neared the drop-off point, he felt awkward and tense. When they got close enough that the valet began walking toward the passenger door, Lily leaned over and gave miles a very quick peck on his forehead.

“Thanks for being such a super nice guy,” she said.

Niles was beginning to sweat and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He couldn’t let it end like this! I need to go full alpha, he thought, and then, with his eyes locking in on her gave voice to the cinematic ending playing in his head.

“Look, you know I love you with every atom in my body,” Niles said. “And I know there’s nobody out there better for you than me.”

“Oh Niles, let’s not–” she said.

“Just listen,” Niles continued. “If you’re single when you’re forty, come find me. I’ll take your beautiful self to Vegas and marry you on the spot.”

“Aw Niles,” she said as the valet opened her door and stared down into her magnificent cleavage, her nipples already stiffening. “You’re just the best.”

Then she took the valet’s outstretched hand as he helped her up and out of the car.

 

***

The petite blonde had smeared cake and icing on her body effectively creating an edible bikini.

“Happy Birthday, Baby!” she shouted when Niles entered the bedroom. She walked up to him and removed his robe. “How does it feel to be forty?” she asked.

Niles smiled and squeezed her ass as he bent down to sample some of the cake from her tit. He came up with some icing on his chin. She stood on her tiptoes and licked it off slowly and sensually, as though she were savoring every bit.

“Not a day over thirty-nine,” Niles said with a chuckle. “How does it feel to be twenty-nine?” he asked in return, but she had already dropped to her knees.

His cock was in her mouth and she was just getting started when the doorbell rang. She paused and looked up at him for instructions. “Ignore it, honey,” he said.

“Another girl here to make your birthday happy?” she asked.

“Nah,” he said as he leaned back against the bed and wound her ponytail around his fist.

***

A week later, the mailman found him at his office and offered Niles a registered letter for which he had to sign with his thumbprint on the small device. A circular light around the scan pad on the small, phone-like device went from red to green and he handed Niles the hologram projector. “All set. Just set it on a desk or table and point the arrow button on top in the direction you want it to appear, and just press the button,” he said.

“Right-o,” Niles said cheerfully.

Niles poured himself a few splashes of Laphroaig and took his glass and the little hologram projector over to the leather couch. He set the device on the coffee table, spinning it so that the arrow pointed out in front. He pressed the button and settled back into the couch.

A very clear bluish green hologram of a woman appeared a few feet in front of him. He sipped his scotch and tried to place her. She looked familiar, but looked awfully old and was quite chubby. Something was off and he was trying to think. There was something familiar about her eyes and sharp, small nose set in the chubby face and double chin. The projector scanned his face to locate his eye level and the hologram blinked and reappeared slightly higher and larger. A soft female voice from the box said, “Actual size. Autoplay selected”.

Niles squinted. Holy shit! he thought. That looks like–”

“Hi Niles,” the hologram said. “It’s Lillith. Well, you knew me as Lily, remember?”

Niles set his drink down on the coffee table and stared at the projection. Her face looked puffy and he could perceive no appreciable shape in her tits apart from what was being pushed up by some kind of power bra so that they spilled out over the top of the sundress that hid her obviously much larger body’s actual shape.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day,” she continued. “I know, blue isn’t my best color. Time, huh? Anyway, I’ll make this quick. Now that we’re both forty I’d like to take you up on your offer which I hope you remember.”

What. The. Fuckity. Fuck? thought Niles as Lillith continued.

“I’ve booked flights and made reservations for Vegas–we’ll be staying in a tower villa at the Wynn–and I hope you don’t mind but I went ahead and bought a wedding dress. Don’t worry, I kept the receipts. I was so relieved and impressed to see how successful you’ve become. One thing: I did book a two-bedroom villa because I was going to bring the kids too, but we lucked out and they’re all headed to their dads’ houses for winter break. The wedding chapel is one of the best in town and we’re booked for Saturday afternoon at five o’clock. A reception is included but I told them to not worry about it since I figured you’d want to plan the actual celebration and probably had some great spots out on the town much nicer than what the chapel offers. Unfortunately, the prices aren’t itemized or ala carte so they had to charge us full price even though we declined the reception.”

Niles downed the rest of his drink. He walked over to the bar to pour another unable to take his eyes off the hologram. The look of unease in his eyes spread to his face and the previously cheerful, successful businessman’s countenance became ashen, defeated as he poured a fresh drink, this time filling the tumbler.

“As the years wore on I realized how right you were that night,” continued Lillith. “I was such a silly girl. But your love and commitment means more to me now than ever. I’m the luckiest girl in the world, and I’m in love with the best man I’ve ever known. The man who won in the end. Won my heart! Like you’ve always wanted. See you soon, baby! I can’t wait to start our life together,” she said, blowing him a kiss as she concluded.

Her image suddenly disappeared. Niles stood there swallowing whisky, wondering if he should replay it just to be sure, when the small projector whirred back to life.

Another bluish green image, of a man in a suit this time, appeared and began talking to Niles’ depression in the soft leather where he had just been sitting a minute earlier.

“Hello, Mr. Raymond, I am Earnest Frank, an attorney in Kittery, Maine where Ms. Albritton currently resides. As I’m sure you’re quite away, any pledge or promise of support to a woman with whom you’ve been intimate is taken very seriously by the federal and state governments subsequent to the passage of the Domestic Fairness and Equity Protection Act some years ago. Namely, in accordance with the act, your promise of future domestic support encompasses emotional and logistical support–including financial–and security unless otherwise adjudicated by a court of law. Because this offer–as asserted by the plaintiff in this action–was sealed and accepted with a consensual sexual act by at least one of the parties. This extends to kissing in the United States by unrelated parties in any kind of sexual milieu, including, but not limited to, a date. Satisfied that all requirements have been met, and absent of any previously undiscovered criminal complaints filed against you by Ms. Albritton for non-consensual sexual advances or sexual assault, we expect to receive a notarized letter or digitally-fingerprinted hologram indicating an intent to comply in this office no more than ten business days from receipt of this notice. Thank you and please contact me with any questions.”

Niles tipped his tumbler of and downed the scotch. He was a long-time scotch aficionado but the quantity made his throat burn. It was good. It pulled him out of his initial shock and confusion.

Moving quickly, he pulled the couch away from the wall and removed the bag of cash, gold, and basic supplies from the hidden compartment, but it was too late. The GPS in the hologram had been activated the moment he successfully scanned his thumb, and several domestic justice enforcement officers were already walking quickly down the hall toward his office, tazers drawn.

###

The Samurai: Holiday Greetings Nightmare

Most members of the crowd held an unlit red, white, or green candle as the woman on the steps of the Episcopal church smiled broadly and called for them to gather in the fading light of dusk. Street and security lights clicked on as a dozen or so carolers shuffled closer together and closer to her, kicking up a little snow in the process.

“Welcome! Welcome all good people, and Happy Holidays! I am the Reverend Eucalypsis Wollstonecraft Meriwhether!” she announced as though she were revealing the grand finale of a magic act, then feigned a W.C. Fields-styled inside joke or backhanded secret whisper. “But most people conserve their oxygen and just call me Reverend Stoney!”

Sporadic chuckles fluttered throughout the group standing on the snow-blanketed lawn.

“Yes, there’s a story behind that name. Yes, you are perfectly welcome to ask me about it some time,” she continued. “Oh, and before I forget, they/them, and I thank you in advance,” she added with a flourish, a partial genuflect. “I’m very glad to see Reverend Eustis from the Unitarian Universalist church here with his partner, Bodi, is it? Bota? Anyway, ‘B’,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh and gesture. “I’d also like to recognize my special friend, Mitch, who is leading the singles ministry at the progressive Methodist congregation she–er, he–just helped start downtown. Please, greet everyone while manifesting the peace of the solstice.”

The members of the crowd exchanged enthusiastic, cheerful greetings of “Happy Holidays!” while Reverend Stoney continued talking over them.

“Mitch will be passing out these flame stickers,” she said, holding up her index finger to show them the orange and yellow sticker clinging to her fingertip. “Actual flames are not only dangerous but also tend to trigger anyone who ever survived a house fire or cross-burning, so please be respectful and do not light yours!”

Most of the crowd nodded although a few looked confused.

“And finally, if you look in your folders you will see that the lyrics of these wonderful carols have been rewritten to better reflect the inclusive non-religious spirituality we’ve all come to expect in these dark time–”

The sudden blaring of a sound they were not familiar with–and which was later described by a disheveled caroler as some kind of “out of control, demonic kitchen blender of the patriarchy”–announced the Samurai’s arrival.

No one saw which way he came from. Suddenly, the crowd parted and backed up forming a ragged circle with him at the center where he was recorded spinning up three perfect donuts by someone quick with their phone. What they didn’t see was the plastic charcoal lighter fluid bottle he was squeezing as he spun. The crowd gasped as he locked eyes with the phone’s owner and drew his pickled-oak katana–almost white–from the scabbard on his back. The words “Merry Christmas’ could be seen written in ragged red letters on the blade as the Samurai caught the man’s offending phone with the tip of the sword and launched it into a nearby non-binary manger scene, then pulled a several large, lit matches seemingly from nowhere and dropped them on the ground.

The lighter fluid immediately ignited causing the carolers to back up quickly. A few turned and ran.

The Samurai then executed a flying spin toward a couple of younger teenagers holding up sticks supporting each end of a “Happy Holidays” banner. “CHILDREN GO!” he yelled as he brought the sword Merry Christmas up through the banner, tearing and mangling it so that it was unusable. He slowly turned three hundred sixty degrees holding Merry Christmas in front of him at a high-ready position until he found himself facing Reverend Stoney who was staring in horror from the porch steps. The Samurai ran toward her but suddenly heard someone shout “Oh no you don’t!” as a large woman expertly covered the distance and intercepted the Samurai before he could reach the porch steps.

“Midge!” Reverend Stoney yelled. “Be careful!”

“It’s Mitch,” Midge yelled in response. “Goddammit!” Midge drove her shoulder into the Samurai from the side, her head sliding expertly in front of his rib cage. Rather than fall, however, The Samurai took the hit and let it carry him away from Midge, performing a twisting side flip with the precision and grace of a trapeze artist or olympic diver.

The Samurai landed back where the flames encircling his Kawasaki were quickly going out. He jumped on the bike and it screamed to life. He sped across the yard toward Midge, who threw a surprisingly muscled arm out in a last-ditch attempt to clothesline The Samurai who deftly ducked the arm, circled Midge, and used the centrifugal force generated by the bike to slam the katana broadside into Midge’s ample backside while shouting “NOT A MAN!” loudly and clearly through the mask. The sword emitted a loud crack as Midge fell forward into the snow.

Speeding away toward the manger scene and holding his cracked katana close to his side, The Samurai performed a perfect skid stop and looked down. A small girl doll was laying in the manger as two male dolls dressed like Mary and Joseph gazed down upon her. Three female dolls holding boxes labeled “gold”, “frankincense”, and “myrrh” were holding the reigns of camels at the edge of the display and appeared to be walking toward the manger. In the manger stall at the rear of the display, a doctor doll had been positioned sitting on a milking stool and holding a partially untwisted coat hanger.

“CONSEQUENCES!” The Samurai shouted before spinning the bike back up and doing some quick donuts and cuts in several piles of reasonable fresh dog shit that stood out vividly against the white snow melting from its edges. His rear wheel showered dog shit upon the outrageous creche with expert, almost preternatural precision, then encircled it quickly, the Kawasaki revving and screaming as he kicked it over with his foot and threw his broken sword at Midge, who had regained her wits and was sprinting at him across the lawn, kicking up snow as she ran.

The thrown sword, despite being almost broken in two, spun like a well-thrown boomerang, crashing into Midge’s legs just above the kneecap and taking her out.

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” he yelled as he sped across the lawn on his back wheel, the front high in the air, ultimately disappearing around a row of neatly squared off hedges and out of view.

Most of the crowd was hiding behind cars and trees at this point. Several lay on the ground amidst all of the scattered candles and dog shit against the white backdrop of snow, torn grass, and mud.

Later, while giving statements to the police, the Unitarian Universalist minister was captured on video yelling, “This was a FUCKING HATE CRIME! Did you hear me? What he said? And we all heard it! I just can’t say it,” he said. “Please, someone, I can’t even say it.”

“It was, Merry Christmas!” Reverend Stoney confirmed, shouting at the officers from across the lawn. “Merry Christmas!”

###

 

 

An Heroic Tale of Bravery and Self-Defense Tits

Bree awoke in the recovery room still groggy from the anesthesia. She could tell right away that she had new big tits. Huge, heavy tits. Heavier than she had imagined. Heavier than she’d thought possible.

Her plastic surgeon, Doctor Goncalves, had tried to talk her into something a bit smaller but she wasn’t having it. At thirty-three, she told him, she deserved these tits. She needed these tits. They were a long time coming, and it had become clear years earlier as she approached her high school graduation that they wouldn’t be coming on their own.

Early adulthood became something of a challenge where dating was concerned. Without much of a second base to go to, she either had to keep her boyfriends on first base long past what felt natural or start waving them over to third base too aggressively. In order to better manage this, she became expert at handjobs and tiding them over with blowies for weeks. She told herself she was less of a slut for doing so but she was an English major and well-versed in irony so the pep talks rang hollow. She never cried herself to sleep but there were occasional tears when laying in her dorm room bed at night thinking about how much easier this would be if she had tits she could offer them and thus buy her more time to decide which boyfriends were worth letting into her pants.

It didn’t help that her younger sister Maud had clearly inherited their mother’s magnificent, perfectly-shaped C cups which Maud woke up with one morning well in advance of her 13th birthday. Bree often reminded herself that she didn’t exactly hate Maud but she did envy the life she had. The high school successes in cheerleading and student government. Even the damn Physics Club. Then college and the sorority and boyfriends who barely noticed her even though, technically, Bree was the “pretty” one.

Then the great husband who spoiled her, the kids while Bree became an event planner and simply worked and dated.

But that was all changing now even if this damned Goncalves was trying to talk her down a cup size or two with his effeminate accent. I thought these dudes were supposed to be macho or something, she thought.

“Going from, well, a flat chest to something so…er, robusto may be highly uncomfortable as well as physically taxing,” he’d said. “And while it’s certainly reversible, there’s no need to tempt fate with unnecessary risk.”

“I’ve been doing yoga and barre for some time now, as well as belly dancing. I’ve spent the last three months in the gym. I have the core of a male high diver, and I want those Ds,” she’d replied. “The kevlar jobs.”

Goncalves shifted in his chair. “You understand those are not approved in most countries, and are twice the cost?” he’d said in his weird halting, lilting voice that to her sounded like a bad performance as a vampire.

“I don’t want to have to do this again, Doctor. I don’t want anything that will burst, deform, none of that. I. Want. Kevlar,” she reiterated, her face puckered, almost pouting. “I want them to be perfect.”

“Very well,” Goncalves had said as he brushed the yacht brochures on his desk under his large calendar blotter. The surgery two days later went well and Bree awoke a new woman. In less than an hour she was sitting up and talking.

“Are they supposed to be this stiff?” she asked as she sipped water through a straw. “I mean, there’s almost no jiggle. It’s like I have two giant round noses on my chest. They just sit there.”

“You asked for kevlar,” Goncalves said with a shrug. “You got kevlar. They should loosen up just a little as your body acclimates.”

“And I’ll look great on Instagram,” she observed. She looked at him and squinted. “Why are you dressed like you’re competing in the America’s Cup?” she asked.

Goncalves smiled. “Get some rest,” he said. “And have a pleasant trip back to the states.”

As he left his office suite he whispered to his assistant, “I never want to see or talk to that crazy bitch again.”

***

“Wow!” Bree’s boyfriend Stan said when he came to see her upon her return. Flowers in hand, big grin on his face, he pushed the flowers at her and gushed. “You look amazing!” he exclaimed at first before dialing it back. “I mean, they look perfectly natural is what I mean.”

She wore a tight, thin fuzzy peach-colored sweater over tight white spandex workout pants. Her petite, athletic frame, slender and narrow-waisted as she was, made her large kevlar tits look even more exaggerated by comparison.

“Look, buddy, we need to talk,” she said.

Stan shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “Got carried away.”

“It’s not that. But it’s been over a year and you haven’t proposed. I don’t think this is going anywhere,” she said coldly. “I do love you, but more like a brother. Maybe I always have.”

“You’re breaking up with me?” he asked. “But the tits…”

“They’re not for you,” she said “They’re for me. And don’t think I don’t know about all those tit pictures on your phone, that top-heavy barista or all your visits to the titty bar when you leave here at night.”

“You followed me?” he asked.

“GPS,” she said.

“Can I at least touch one before I go?” he asked.

She sighed. “Make it quick.”

He walked over boldly and attempted a squeeze but his hand practically bounced off the. “That’s a really firm bra,” he said.

“I’m not wearing a bra,” she replied.

“Yeah, but anti-personnel tits?” he asked.

“Goodbye, Stan.”

***

Bree enlisted Maud to take plenty of pictures of her around town for a new dating profile. After a few months of constant dates, several marriage proposals, and one attempted rape/kidnapping, Bree was in a funk. She asked Maud to come over and split a bottle of prosecco and help her figure out how she felt about it.

“I’m getting bored,” she told Maud.

“I’ll bet you are,” Maud replied.

“That’s not funny!” Bree shouted, tears welling in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Maud said. “It’s the prosecco talking.”

“My boobs are so stiff most guys’ hands just bounce off when they go for a squeeze. They have to slow down a lot and then it’s just creepy. I keep thinking about that hand that used to crawl around by itself on the Addams Family,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “My nipples don’t even get hard half the time anymore. And that guy I really liked, the football player. He put his erection between them, and when I pushed them together he screamed! He had to go to the doctor and doesn’t call me anymore!”

Maud snickered but Bree was opening another bottle of prosecco and didn’t notice, and continued. “But then that Uber guy tried getting grabby and without thinking I just pushed my boobs together and he sprained his wrist or something. And I thought, what’s more empowering than tits that are for more than just for show?” she opined. “But I just don’t know.”

Maud snickered again.

“What?” Bree asked.

“What?” Maud asked.

“You laughed or something,” she said. “Are you laughing at me?”

“What? No!” Maud insisted. “I…think it’s kind of heroic. Using your tits to fuck up some asshole’s hand. I just think, I don’t know, that maybe if you have kids someday, you might want tits that are more, I don’t know, user-friendly. Maybe you should’ve just stuck with nature,” she said. “Maybe you should have another surgery, go back to normal. Or something, you know, close.”

“Easy for you to say, mom clone!” she screamed. “You’ve never been titty-shamed a day in your amazing, perfect-titted life!”

“Titty-shamed?”

“You have a perfect husband,” Bree continued, “perfect home, perfect kids!”

“Oh, honey, my life isn’t perfect,” she said, tilting her glass and swalling the rest of the prosecco as though it were a shot of whiskey. “You should see the tile in the master bath.”

“Seeeeeeee!” she said. “You have a master bath and tile to hate! What do I have?”

“Jugs,” Maud said matter-of-factly. “Big, bulletproof jugs.”

Bree ran to the bathroom and slammed the door.

***

Winter arrived early that year and Cleveland was receiving flurries every day along with the occasional lake effect snow storm. Heavy snow was falling and collecting on Bree’s windowsill as she looked down at the street below. She and Maud had not talked for days and it was bringing her down, so she thought a little shopping might make her feel better. She bundled up in her large, heavy parka and flipped up the hood as she left her apartment building, her face already stinging from the cold north wind.

A mother was standing on the corner near a free neighborhood newspaper box holding an umbrella over her daughter in the heavy falling snow and freezing wind. The girl sat on a small folding camp chair next to a small trash can holding a half dozen or so umbrellas. A sign on the trash can read “Snow Umbrellas – $10.00”.

As she passed the girl and her mother, something made her stop in her tracks and walk toward them. It was the newspaper box, the face out copy behind the display window. It sported a headline that got her attention: “Local Woman Stops, Injures Attacker”. She took a paper and quickly scanned the story.

It was about her and the Uber guy! Word had spread somehow! She remembered there had been a few people around.

“I wished she’d broken his hand,” a man who identified himself as “just a concerned male feminist” was quoted as saying. “Guys like that are why the patriarchy even exists.”

“I hope more women go there,” a young mother was quoted as saying. “I’m thinking about getting some kevlar tits myself. Maybe some for my daughter, too, when she’s older.”

They were talking about her as if she were a hero! Her mind spun with thoughts and possibilities. Crimestoppers. Oprah! She imagined herself being interviewed by Oprah herself and grew dizzy with excitement. Suddenly it occurred to Bree that she’d been thinking about this all wrong and had been silly to be so disappointed. Everyone struggled with something so why should she be different. There was always a silver lining. She realized that simply getting big fake tits wasn’t the answer, at least not the whole answer. It was what you did with them that counted.

She’d been so foolish!

As the thought of that brought the warmth back to her face, she began noticing that even in her heavy parka the big kevlar tits were prominent, noticeable. Her big thick coat didn’t hold back or hide her breasts much better than a sweater did! Everyone else on the sidewalk, from a mailman to the woman and girl selling umbrellas looked uniformly androgynous and flat-chested in their heavy coats and parkas, but not her.

Most passers-by, she began noticing, endured the whipping snow flakes just to gawk at her, male and female alike. Maybe they were even making the connection between her and the story in the neighborhood news! Was she on her way to becoming a neighborhood folk hero? Perhaps one day, her amazing new Kevlar tits would stop a bullet and save a life.

That would look amazing on Instagram. Oh, shit! she thought. Instagram!

I’m going to need an amazing tattoo before bikini season.

###

The Coach: Online Man Spears

The bright red F-450 dually blasting Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ came a little too fast into the gravel lot of the small country store that also served meat-and-three vegetable  plates at lunchtime. Close to two dozen men were standing around lowered tailgates and sitting in the cabs of trucks parked in the shade, eating. A few looked up but most were focused on generous portions of chicken and dumplings, collards, and okra when the bright red truck skidded to a stop near the ice cooler near the door.

Trent opened his door and jumped down from the cab. His beard was thick and well-coiffed and he wore a navy blue t-shirt with the words “Consider Yourself Challenged” in white block letters on the front.

“Fuck!” he said. “This isn’t the Everglades. Better get in some push-ups.”

Screened from the others by his large truck, he did some quick stretches followed by light calisthenics then walked around the back of the dually toward the door.

“How’s that fricassee today, boys?” he said congenially while remembering to project total alpha as he passed the strangers and wondered which one was the alpha of the group. “Might have to try some before I leave.”

As before, a few looked up and stared while most continued eating and talking.

“What you haul with that dually?” asked one man wearing a “Bowhunters Do It At Full Draw” tee shirt asked. Trent stopped mid-stride and turned away from the door and addressed the man.

“Hey! I have a bow, too,” Trent remarked. “Don’t have it with me right now but I got some pics right here on the phone.” 

“That the four wheel drive with the manual hubs?” another man asked, nodding at Trent’s truck. Still another asked, “Four-fifty turbo?”

“All of the above,” Trent shouted in answer to all of the questions, then added, “killer sound system, too. You guys ever listen to Journey? I’ve been thinking of playing them next time I walk out on stage at a show.”

“Yeah? You in a band?” one young man in an orange cap asked. “You play any Jason Aldean?”

“No, not a musician,” Trent answered. “I’m a men’s coach.”

“Oh yeah?” the young man asked. “High school or college? You that new defensive backs coach for Georgia?”

“No,” said Trent, “I mean, I do coach a kids’ swim team. But my main gig is online masculinity coaching. One of the manosphere’s most challenging.”

At that the young man grew silent and stared back at Trent. A few of the other men who had been listening just looked at each other and shrugged.

“The fuck is that?” asked the bowhunter.

Trent smiled. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. “Basically I spread the good news about masculinity. It’s okay to be a man today even though society is working against you. Well, I’m helping to change that, to change the West by helping men solve their problems, challenge them to be better. Like, just yesterday I helped a man in my online community deal with how to handle a wife who’s cheating on him.”

“Throw the whore out,” said a man at the back of the group. “That’s what I did. Then I fucked her step-mama and her cousin.” They all laughed. “But not at the same time,” he clarified.

“Haha,” Trent laughed uneasily. “Well you gotta do what you gotta do, right?”

At that, the men quit listening and went back to eating and Trent went looking for the men’s room.

“Ok I’ll be seeing you boys,” he said a few minutes later on his way back to his truck. He climbed in and the big diesel engine chugged to life.

The men eating in the shade had finished their lunches and were now filing by the trash can and dropping their styrofoam plates and plastic forks. They could hear Don’t Stop Believin’ as Trent pulled out even though his windows were up.

“The fuck is ‘online man spears’?” the bowhunter asked.

The young man in the orange cap shrugged. “Some gay ass shit, you ask me.”

The rest of the group nodded in agreement as they headed back to the job site.

 

Grandma

Travis strolled down the bright and jumping Vegas strip enjoying the weirdness on parade. At one point he had to sidestep a Darth Vader who was apparently perving on a showgirl in a massive headdress who may have been a man. The showgirl shoved Vader into a family wearing matching yellow tee shirts with “Cheesehead” emblazoned across the front. The dust up resulted in his drink being spilled but he didn’t really mind. It was a nice change of pace from his typical day back home, and he had spent the afternoon gearing up for a good night in sin city. First a nap, then a long, hot bath followed by another short nap had restored his vigor after a long morning, most of which had been spent watching old women from Henderson playing video poker although he hadn’t really been watching them. He had been smoking weed and as he made his way through the casino, the combination of lights and sounds on that particular row of machines fascinated him and the women reminded him of his grandmas who were all dead. But he remembered them like it was yesterday and in his altered state he was trying to remember if he’d had two grandmas or seventeen.

He only saw five here that he was sure about.

He enjoyed weed but it sometimes made him much too paranoid and he was starting to worry a little that he might’ve killed his grandma who he was living with in Birmingham but he was almost certain that was not the case. You just need more coffee, he told himself, and go back to church.

If he worked hard enough at it when he was stoned and afraid he’d killed someone like grandma he would always remember that she’d left him the nice condominium overlooking Highland Park and her money that had previously been his grandpa’s money. Now grandpa, he remembered, was a different story. Everyone was pretty sure that she had killed him but there just wasn’t any proof because he had completely disappeared over twenty-five years earlier. The life insurance never paid off arguing that he was never seen again so he could very well be alive. His grandma Nell could have had him declared legally dead and could have fought the insurance company in court but then the policy was only for a million and a half and she inherited five times that from his estate, so she let it go. By the time she died she had turned some seven million give or take into almost twenty and had left half of that to her devoted grandson who had always been there for her.

In honor of his grandfather he had already made most of the money in her bank account disappear, around twenty thousand from a monthly annuity payment and some social security benefits. It would take a little time, the financial advisor told him, for them to liquidate her investments and get the cash to him, so he took the few thousand he had left, closed her account, and went to Vegas to pass the time where weed was supposedly legal and so was sex.

That was how you got here, he reminded himself. You would never kill your grandma. You loved her. You’ve never hurt anyone besides yourself.

If the gambling grannies were concerned about being observed by a middle-aged man in a plaid Lacoste shirt for three and a half hours, they didn’t let on. He, in turn, heard everything they talked about and remembered it all. It was just like talking to Granny Nell! he thought. By the end it was as if he’d known them for years. He knew about Ann’s hip surgery and Lila’s grandchildren. Less than a day in sin city and he’d already made friends! Though he still regretted the apparent breach of protocol for asking, “Say, do you gals ever win at this?” as the last one lost her bus fare and turned on him with blazing eyes.

“Who the fuck said that?” she had yelled. “What kind of shitass would say something like that!”

“I’m sorry?” Travis said.

“You, sir, are a dumbass. Probably a shithead!” she scolded.

“Pardon?” he replied. “No.”

“Give me some bus fare,” she demanded. “I need to get home and you queered my game.”

“But it was over,” he replied. “You know I follow Fonzie–the Fonz, remember?–on Twitter and he posts some pretty heavy shit like–”

“What’re you, some kind of retard?” she scolded. “Did you just call me a twit? Say I was some kind of twit?”

“No, I–”

“I’m an old woman and you’re talking about my twat, you bastard!” she yelled. “Bus fare or I’m calling the cops! Stiff penalties here for harassing the elderly! You have no clue, fella!”

“No, I’m not–of course!” he exclaimed. “How much do you need?”

“Forty-seven thousand dollars,” she said. “Cash.”

“For a bus ticket?” Travis asked.

“Round trip,” she said.

Travis looked around. Even though they were in an obscure, out of the way corner of the casino hemmed in by hundreds of blinking, beeping machines, he was sure security would appear at any moment. He held up two fifties. “How far will a hundred get you?” he asked.

She snatched the bills and said, “Nowhere fast, shitass,” as she walked away. Later, he saw her sitting at a Pai Gow table with several stacks of green chips and several stacks of black chips in front of her. Maybe purples, too, but he didn’t want to get close enough to see. It bothered him that he might have been scammed somehow, and she seemed like trouble.

But that was all behind him now. It was his first night ever in Vegas and he was on his way to a show. A real Vegas show! He looked and saw a cab approaching so he took a chance and hailed it. It stopped!

I should be gambling,” he thought. “I’ve got hot running luck!”

He opened the passenger door and started in when he felt a hand on his backside shoving him across to the far side where he slumped against the door. He turned and looked at his assailant. The old woman! She had climbed in behind him and shut the door.

“Paradise Pawn and Gun,” she yelled at the driver, sitting back and tightening the selt belt. “And an extra hundo if you don’t catch us in this fruit and nuts show traffic and get me there before they close.”

The cabbie floored it, throwing Travis back against the seat. “Seaside a  beltsis!” he yelled at Travis and the woman. “Put on.”

“Hey!” said Travis. “I’ll miss my show. That ticket cost one hundred forty dollars!”

The woman pulled a wad of hundreds the size of a double cheeseburger, snapped off a couple bills, and tossed them at him.

“Keep the change, rube,” she said. “Where you from, anyhow?”

“Birmingham,” said Travis. “Alabama.”

“Well that explains it,” she said derisively.

“No one in my family has ever been here before,” he said.

“Congrats,” she said sarcastically. “Money well spent.”

“It doesn’t give you the right to kidnap me and make me miss my–where I was going!” Travis protested.

“Fuck that noise. You’re not kidnapped. This is a cab for fucks sake. You can get out any time you want,” she pointed out. “You got in the cab voluntarily, genius. It’s not like you’re being held against your will.”

“Good then I want to get out,” he said to the driver.

“Hell no you can’t get out!” she yelled. “After the pawn shop. I’ll pay him to take you wherever you want to go.” She held up the massive wad of hundreds with her tiny hand. “Just sit still and shut up.”

“What’s so important about the pawn shop?” he asked.

“Never you mind, Scooter,” she said harshly.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

She scowled at him again. “Abigail. Boulevard. Zimbabwe, the fuck does it matter?” she snapped. “Now shut up before I kick you in your box or whatever you got down there.”

Travis sighed and settled back into his seat and watched the lights and faces along the sidewalk stream by as they sped west toward the setting sun. He glanced over at the old woman but she was sitting upright with her eyes closed as though meditating.

Thinking she was asleep, he quietly pulled out his flip phone and dialed then held it to his ear. “Hey, Uncle Barney? Yeah it’s Travis,” he said in a quiet voice. “You’ll never guess where I–” But that was as far as he got. The old woman opened one eye and slapped the phone out of his hand. It hit the door handle and broke into several pieces that clattered down onto the floorboard.

“My phone,” Travis said, defeated.

“What you?” the driver said. Travis looked up and saw him looking at Travis in the rear-view mirror. “Are you her…byeotch, how you say or someting?”

“Sit still, fucker!” the old lady said. “I’m not going to tell you again. We’re almost there.”

Just as Travis settled back into his seat, the driver turned quickly into a small, run down shopping center and stopped in front of Paradise Pawn and Gun. A large clock on a roof gable read five fifty-five.

“We made it!” he exclaimed. “With five minutes to spare!”

The woman rolled her eyes and paid the cabbie.

“You want I wait?” the cabbie asked her.

“Fuck no, Al Queso” she said, giving him an extra hundred. “But take him wherever he needs to go, just get him out of here.”

Then she counted out more money, laying it on the back seat.

“Here’s an extra thousand,” she said. “For a new phone. One that was made in the last twenty years. Quit fucking up your life. Quit being a dumbass. Go back to Alabama and stay there and do something that isn’t so stupid. Go to bed at a reasonable hour. Have some fucking milk and cookies instead of weed for a change.”

“What?” he said. “Who are you?”

“Who the fuck you think, shitass?” she shouted at him. “Somebody’s grandma.”

Then she slammed the door. The cab made a half-circle and exited the parking lot. As they pulled into traffic, he turned for one last look at the old woman, but she was gone. Instead of a shopping center there was just a big empty lot on a big empty block. Travis looked at the driver but his eyes were on the road ahead. He scooped the money off the seat and folded it, stuffed it in his pocket.

“I take?” the driver asked.

Travis looked up and met the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “Take me to the airport,” he said.

“Airport!” the driver exclaimed. “Now where you going?”

“Home,” he said to the cab driver. “I’m going home.”

###

His Name is Earl

Earl won almost two hundred dollars at the craps table in Vegas that night. It was an older casino, a bit off the strip, but what it lacked in amenities it offered in service and ambience. A real “Old Vegas” feel. He had told the dealer and everyone listening that he just knew when first driving past the place that he would do well here.

“Why I don’t even believe it!” he declared to everyone around him. “I’ve never won this much money before at anything!”

A drunk wearing a shiny red shirt looked Earl up and down, and with unconcealed disdain at his stained beige field coat and worn, off-white straw cattleman’s hat said, “Well don’t spend it all at once place, and I’d avoid the O.K. Corral if I was you, Wyatt Earp.” He slurred his words while laughing contemptuously.

“Thank you kindly, sir,” Earl said as he gathered his chips. “After I conduct some much-needed business at the cashier’s window, I believe I will use my good fortune to indulge in a good cigar, one double-pour of fine whisky, and a premium steak.” Passing the man on his way to the cashier’s window, he leaned in and said in a low voice, “Beg pardon, but you know, Wyatt Earp came out on top at the O.K. Corral, friend.”

A couple minutes later at the window, Earl gently dropped the chips on the counter and addressed the cashier. “Hi there, ma’am. I’m Earl Byrd from Lower Alabama and I won one hundred eight-seven dollars at your craps table.”

“Well hi there back, Earl,” said the cashier, an older lady with gray skin and heavy makeup resembling a clown’s. Her name tag read, Dina. She looked up at him. “You certainly are a tall drink of water,” she said then quickly counted the chips. “Earl,” she continued, “I’m afraid you haven’t won a hundred and eighty-seven dollars.”

“Ma’am?” Earl asked.

She beamed, then exclaimed excitedly, “You won one hundred eighty-eight dollars, Mr. Earl!”

“Oh I don’t think so, ma’am,” said Earl. “I counted it three times.”

The cashier held her smile past its expiration per her training. “Oh now Mr. Earl, I count these chips for a living. You should trust me on this.”

“I count things too,” he said. “I’m what you might call a master sorter. Used to work at the new Korean auto plant until I got the call.”

“Oh, are you a minister, Mr. Earl?” she asked as she began re-counting, slowly.

He smiled. “Something like that.”

Dina counted out the chips slowly in front of him. “…and seven, and eight. See what I mean?”

Earl looked over the chips laid out in rows by color. “You sure are right, ma’am,” said Earl. “Are you going to call security on me now?”

“Security?” Dina asked. “Sweetie why on earth would I do that?”

“Because I must’ve stole that extra chip from the table,” Earl said matter-of-factly.

“Sir, are you saying that you have stolen chips from the craps table?” Dina asked, raising her hand to signal the head cashier over.

“I must’ve,” Earl repeated. “Because I know I only won a hundred eighty-seven.”

The supervisor as well as a pit boss from the craps area and a couple of security officers arrived. They discussed the incident inside the Cashier’s cage while Earl waited patiently at Dina’s window. Finally, a swarthy man in a gray suit left the cage and approached Earl.

“Earl, is it?” the main said, smiling and extending his hand. “I’m Mr. Sayataan.”

Earl grasped the offered hand and shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Satan,” he said. “I’m Earl Lee Byrd.”

“A pleasure,” the man replied, slightly annoyed. “And it’s pronounced, ‘Sigh-ah-tane’. Could you tell me what your problem is with Dina’s count?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t hear anything but Mr. Satan out of that pronunciation,” Earl said sincerely. “Begging your pardon.”

“Could you repeat what you told Dina for me?” Sayataan asked impatiently.

“It sure must be difficult going through life with a name like Satan,” Earl remarked lightly. “I don’t think I could ever get over that.”

The security man took a deep breath. “Yes and I could say the same thing about your name, now couldn’t I?” he replied with a contentious smile.

“About Earl?” he asked. “You mean like pearl or swirl or hurl or curl? Some people called me burly Earl when I was a kid, on account I was stocky for a few years.”

“Earl Lee Bird,” Sayataan said slowly, emphasizing each word. “Early Bird. Do you experience many people asking you if you got the worm?”

“Worm?” Earl asked. “Like for bream fishing or catfishing?”

“Nevermind. About your chips. What if I told you that all those chips were yours and you are free to cash them in and leave?”

Earl’s face went pale. “Are you trying to tempt me, Mister Satan?” he asked, a slight smirk giving his face a harder, less congenial appearance.

“What?” Saytaan asked. “Our specialists have reviewed the camera footage of your playing,” he said, “and nothing looks out of the ordinary. So I’ve claime–uh cleared you.”

“Incident?” asked Earl. “What incident?”

“The alleged theft of the one dollar chip you say might have accidentally become mixed in with your own chips,” he said with growing impatience.

“Oh I didn’t steal anything,” Earl said. “At least, I didn’t mean to if I did. Which I didn’t. But you,” Earl said. “You aim to steal something from me, don’t you?”

The security man’s eyes narrowed. “Please, if I can not be of any further service, take your winnings and enjoy your eterni–that is, your stay, sir.”

“Thought so,” Earl said confidently. Without warning he swiftly pulled a gleaming Civil War era short sword from inside his jacket and sliced through the man’s neck, swiftly and cleanly in one smooth motion. “Sic Semper, lesser demon!” he shouted as a bright light flashed, temporarily obscuring everyone in the booth and causing Earl to avert his eyes as the light intensified and enveloped the demon. Earl secured the sword in the scabbard in his coat and then turned back to confirm no trace of the demon remained.

Earl found himself alone again at the cashier’s window where Dina was counting out his money. Dina and one other cashier were once again the only people in the booth. It was as if nothing had happened.

“One-hundred eighty-five, six, and seven,” she said as she flicked the crisp bills down on the counter. “Is there anything else I can kil–do for you?”

Earl studied her for a few seconds, then smiled sheepishly and looked at her name tag. “Well, ma’am, I couldn’t help but notice you don’t have a ring on your finger, and, well now your name tag says Dinah, with an ‘H’.”

“Yes?” she said, her eyes narrowing.

“That would be ‘H’,” he said. “For Hell.”

Without warning Earl flicked his wrist and tossed a dirty, white one-dollar chip through the gap in the bars directly at the cashier’s face. Surprised and slightly panicked, her eyes flashed yellow and he quickly, smoothly drew his sword just as the demon poured itself through the bars and sprung at him.

“Goddam,” he said, swinging for her neck. “I love this fuckin’ job.”

###