Thank God for Garbage Trucks

short story by Alex Forbes

I was a federal agent. No, no, not a regular agent. We were deputized. We were the good guys, you know. The bad guys were rogue federal agents. They went around shooting people without probable cause, you know. They liked to snoop without a warrant just in case someone said something they didn’t like. We were outnumbered. They were looking for us.

And they were better armed, too. They carried Glock 9mm automatics, and Army assault rifles. I think I carried a Colt revolver; I forget. I never use the damn things any more; they make too much noise. We were supposed to take them down, those rogue agents, but they always had us on the run. I remember one incident where I was trying to escape, climbing a crumbling mud embankment that came apart in my  hands as I clawed at it. But they were after someone else that day.

I knew all my team buddies from the old days. They shot Larry, my old college room-mate. There was good old Leonard, a black co-worker back in simpler times. He used to play the sweetest swing-time blues you ever heard, on his alto sax. He was too gentle a guy for a job like this. I think he got away though.

They finally caught me. I think it was on that embankment. You didn’t have to surrender. When they got you, you knew it. They had a Glock planted on the back of my head. They were yelling at me. I didn’t say anything to them, because after a while I couldn’t hear them any more. I was just kneeling there. In the mud.

I heard this loud CRASH! BANG! and I said to myself, “Hell, this is no good.” I couldn’t hear, but I heard a voice. It sounded like Larry.

The voice told me, “You are the new Savior. He wants you to go forth into the world and make it right again.” That is when I knew I was dead.

Next I heard that sound again, that loud CRASH! BANG! and everything became clear to me.

“Damn, that’s the garbage truck, down on the boulevard. It must be about five o’clock. I gotta get up and pee.”

So I got up to face the new day. I made the coffee. It is good to be alive. Thank God for garbage trucks.

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The Bridge to Ever Was

Short story by Fred Leeds

Submitted for your more than routine consideration, one Charlie Smith, a reformed, once habitual alcoholic. That is how things seem from Charlie’s point of view anyway. To put it more truly though less charitably, Charlie is an alcoholic who is habitually reforming. Today, truth and charity will join hands at last, however, for Charlie has an appointment with destiny. The paper bag which he so casually carries will no longer hold its usual high-proof content but something else altogether. Today, Charlie will peer into his bag and bottle of false salvation and find a miracle.

Our curtain opens on Heaven, where two angels are discussing Charlie’s fate.

“There he is, stoned right on schedule,” says Angel One, who is acquainted with such things. In his days on earth, he had a certain taste for the grape, which he conquered through hard struggle. As he speaks, he pokes a bony finger through a celestial cloud and points to earth.

The cloud clears and Charlie appears, reeling down Main Street as usual.

“You’re right, by God, or should I say by the devil? He does seem rather hopeless,” says Angel Two. Continue reading

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To Smell A Rose

Jorge Villaneuva opened a new document on his laptop. This just didn’t create the same feeling of excitement as rolling a fresh sheet of bond paper into a 1970’s Selectric, but what today is as exciting as it was when we were all young?

If only we could learn how to capture in writing the scent of the rose, we could write about anything. It very often turns out that painting, poetry or music are better mediums for expressing these kinds of experiences. When Jorge had tried this sort of thing in the past, lacking just the right approach, he knew he tended to flit around the subject. It was that old moth metaphor, spiralling once again around the flickering flame.

Others have already researched this from different angles, Jorge learned.

“Verbal context strongly influences the perception of odor quality—a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet,” explained the researchers. “For example, the same odorant smells entirely different depending on whether it is labeled as fresh cucumber or mildew.” — learning to smell the roses, context weblog

To start filling the empty space on his blank page, Jorge wrote:

To Smell A Rose – by Jorge X. Villaneuva

Here he stopped. Doubt struck him. If he was wrong in this, or off the mark, confirmation would surely arrive in the form of another rejection slip.

Just how does one describe the fragrance of a rose? Here we are hoping to capture the essence, as it were, of that which cannot be apprehended directly by cognition and descriptive language. In situations like this, writers resort to metaphor and simile. They concoct over-elaborate literary dramas; they concentrate on what it feels like to smell such a blossom.

And so Jorge wrote:

When we smell the colorful perfume of a flowering rose, it infuses the timeless intoxicating fragrance of blossoms in the springtime of memory. We inhale the love of the very spring itself. Some say our sensory experience is affected by what we are told we are smelling. I would argue it is associative in other ways as well. I want the rose to recapture the scent of my Julia’s hair when she stepped out of the shower, wrapped in a clean turkish towel, smiling shyly with that delightful invitation to draw closer.

And here Jorge stopped again. Julia, my God, how long has it been since you passed from our world? His eyes brimmed with wetness until he couldn’t read the damned document.

A slow, tortured panic engulfed him. Once again, he felt this old encroaching paralysis of uncertainty. He could remember their redwood planter box on the front concrete walkway. In it, Julia’s orange rose bush thrived. They’d lived in that cramped apartment in one of those parts of Fresno where people just never grow roses. He remembered how Julia tended their rose. How beautiful she looked when she talked to it! It became, in her care, their symbol of a love that could never die …

So, how again did it come to pass that his Julia died, and his love for life died with it in that awful, awful, terrible year? Without that love how could he say for sure he, Jorge, truly remembered Julia?

Whenever Jorge found himself remembering the bad years, he had long since acquired the habit of stopping work. There is no point in it, he knew, when sorrow washes over the afternoon like tide and surf erasing clean all our fragile trails in the sand. He poured himself a generous glass of Wine In A Box. He put on the music. It was the old mourning ritual he’d acquired over the years.

Their old Fleetwood Mac favorite was playing –  ‘Landslide’, sung so hauntingly by Stevie Nicks:

“I took my love, I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
till the landslide brought me down …

Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too…”

In the old days, they used to listen to this song together, Jorge and Julia, but to them it sang of an earlier, innocent world. In the old days, they fancied it sang of two people, a couple growing old together. In the old days, they would draw closer together in giggles and wonderment at what the future had in store for the two of them together.

Today, their song sang to Jorge of the icy reality of self-imposed confinement: isolation in a bare dark cold cell in plain sight of the sunshine of a world already paraded past and gone, as if it had forgotten you as you had forgotten it, and not a damned thing heaven and earth could do to make life whole again.

First there had been the visit to the oncology clinic on the fateful day when they broke the news to Julia and Jorge. Then followed the youthfully ebullient “we can lick this too” months. Finally, they faced brutal weeks of accelerating physical and spiritual decline, yet they tried to shield each other from the fearful new landslide of private dread, the looming specter of   inevitability.

Jorge remembered the day Julia started shutting down. She turned away first from the future, then from their past, and finally, even,  from the tendernesses of the moment. Even as Jorge could not accept, Julia knew. And so it happened the phone call came that one night when Jorge was not prepared and was not there by her side. That, he knew, was the night he, Jorge, had really died inside.

He had taken his leave of absence from the day job, at the Metro Express Daily Review, where he used to write ad copy and short general interest articles. That leave of absence stretched out until finally everybody understood Jorge Villaneuva had left the employ of the Metro Express Daily Review.

Jorge tried freelancing. He tried to discipline himself to write six hours a day. Most of it, he knew, was not his best. He threw that out, but he managed to place a few articles and stories in the shoppers, trade journals and special-interest magazines with limited circulation. Freelance was not much, and brought home less. It was not exciting or demanding, as he’d hoped, but it filled the days, and most months, it paid the rent and the booze bill. Still, evenings, his music played on while Jorge tried to remember what it had felt like when he was alive.

The next morning, Jorge brought a cup of strong french roast over to his writing desk. He stared again and again at what he had written. There used to be satisfaction in tearing a sheet of paper out of the typewriter, wadding it up, and tossing it into the wastebasket. Not now.

Holy crap, Jorge thought. This is all wrong. I am become the man bereft of sight, still trying to describe the world of color to the sighted.

On a clean new document, Jorge wrote:

To Smell A Rose – by Jorge X. Villaneuva

It is useless for those who can no longer smell roses to write of the smell of the rose.

And what exactly, we must now all ask, is the real essence of the rose?

My name is Jorge. The “X” used to stand for Xavier, my middle name. In those years when the days were bracketed by a living past and future, they used to kid me that the “X” was the placeholder convention for “no middle initial”.  They had it wrong. Only today does the “X” stand for what I shut out of my life — all those precious things we celebrated, which brightened our lives every day.

You, who dance in the seasons like the breeze, may perhaps say the scent of the rose is like the timeless intoxicating fragrance of blossoms in the springtime of memory. You, who play in the sunshine of life, may perhaps say it is like inhaling the nectar of the very spring itself. You, who grew up with the roses, may say that the idea of a world without roses is frightening.

I wish to tell you I encountered a more horrifying specific. I had forgotten how to embrace the fullness of life that the rose represents. As will happen to all of us as we walk hand in hand down those paths life deals us, I lost my Julia, the great love of my life. I shut out the scent of our rose. I forgot the excitement it had brought us.

I leave you, for now, with my orange rose. Somehow it was given to me again to directly apprehend the face of my love in this rose, and she made me smile in recalling the wonderful time we spent together. This is the real essence of the rose: its beauty is not just in its velvet petals, but in the whole plant, and in the people who care for and nurture it. The rose is everything, the smell of life, growth and the loamy richness of laughter. This is what it means to be alive: once again, to smell a rose.

short story by Alex Forbes ©September 26, 2009

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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The Pressed Rose

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Over all the paths and crossroads of life, few of them turn out to be pivotal. If we say “pivotal”, we think of all of the events in life that hold great personal significance to us, and were memorable and dear to our hearts, but what we really mean is this: this thing, this choice, changed the direction of life forever.

I keep a small, private, personal list of dates near at hand. Partly for sentimental reasons, it’s mostly to shore up my famously unreliable memory for dates and anniversaries. It seems this list counts just under a hundred recallable events in my life bearing some special meaning worth recording.

I can see the day I bought my first new car, my graduation dates (even grammar school), employment dates for all the different hats I wore in a variety of careers, and important birthdays, anniversaries and dates of death.

But which of these, really, can truly be said to have changed life forever?

I’m hoping you can help me figure out how one could best answer this question.

Certainly, my early decision to leave home and join the Army was pivotal. Certainly, the date I met Grant was epochal; that was the day we two picked as the anniversary of our long and wonderful permanent partnership. I think we would also have to count my decision to enter college. In today’s volatile workplace, I would never count employment dates as being life-changing events, even though I finally ended my working years with nearly two decades in a single firm.

Truthfully, when we strip out all of the nonessentials, no matter how many times I go over it, I still can come up with no more than six or seven dates, out of a reasonably long lifetime, where I can honestly say “This mattered. This made a big difference.”

In my own uninspiring history, I might have at least supposed, with each of these pivotal dates, that I could recall some shock of awareness in being about to commit to a momentous decision. I can remember a few such realizations, but they were seldom pivotal events. Most were just important events.

I am looking at one really cryptic entry on the list. There’s nobody else left in my world who could have any idea what it means. To this day, even I am not sure whether it was actually a pivotal event, or only just another date. That day had a profound impact on me either way.

My entry reads: “Stone Mountain GA trip American Amalgamated 1978.”

It was just a routine company training trip. Something still happened that I never could completely shake.

A couple of years before I left Amalgamated, the company sent some of us across the country to Stone Mountain, Georgia, for three days of intensive training. Stone Mountain always was a hard-drinking town. Social and business expectations were different back then. Our executives probably set records for hard work and hard play.

We were greeted in the hotel lobby with a command invitation to a party in the Vice Presidential Suite. It’s such a pleasant boost to the ego when the vice-presidents go out of their way to mingle with the worker bees. You know there is always the subtext that the VP’s might be sizing us up socially for more important positions. But the booze still flowed into the early morning hours, and we were royally entertained.

I admit not remembering much about the next day’s classes. I do remember most of the notes I took back home to Reno were illegible. After classes, Mike, one of the VP’s, suggested to me that we mosey over to the hotel bar on the other side of the parking lot from the convention center. Mike was not only a very senior VP, meaning you wouldn’t ever want to pass on an opportunity like this, he really knew our business, and he was one hell of a nice guy.

At the bar we both ordered beers with scotch chasers. Mercifully, my horrible hangover from the previous evening began to subside. We had a great chat about the business, too. I had some half-cocked idea about the way we put the new business on the books, and I forget what it was, but we enjoyed a good half hour of lively one-on-one conversation. We ordered a new round of drinks.

The bar was open to the public, and also had a dance floor, currently empty, but it was still noisy inside. Then some kind of recorded music started. Couples started trickling out onto the dance floor. It got noisier.

I do enjoy people-watching. Mike and I raised our voices to continue our talk at the bar. I happened to spot one young lady drifting out onto the floor with her dance partner. This might have come to my notice only because she turned as they went out, and she looked, I was pretty sure, straight at me. I hadn’t even been in Georgia since my Army days. Yet I, on my part, was pretty sure that I knew her.

What I was sure of was, I’d never seen the guy she was dancing with before in my life. I scooted my chair closer to Mike’s so I could hear him. I tried to keep an eye on this girl without being too obvious.

The thing is, if this was that girl, she’d gained some weight. It’d been a while, so that was certainly possible. The other thing that didn’t fit was, I knew Janeen from back when we all lived in Reno. Her boyfriend had been my best friend. This girl was smiling on that dance floor, something Janeen didn’t do a lot of in the old days, but her smile and her eyes looked exactly the same to me. She didn’t look my way any more at all, and I turned back to talk with Mike.

They say that Déjà vu is like an out-of-body experience, an electrifying feeling that you’ve been somewhere or done something before, and that you’re witnessing its live re-creation. Words people use include “eerie”, “strange” and “weird”. For a second there, spotting this Janeen look-alike had me going. But it was only in that spooky sense in which we remember a dream that seemed too real for a time.

The next thing that happened was my one and only real-deal, full-blown “Déjà vu”.

The dance was over, I’d guess, as the noise had stopped for just a minute, and then a new song started. I looked up to see if I could still spot this “Janeen”. The dance partner had evaporated, but I saw her coming out of the group on the other side of the floor with a new dance partner in tow. He looked for all the world like someone else I knew. Harry.

It was as if my past had walked into the room and punched me in the face. You can have no idea how hauntingly unreal this episode seemed. One minute I was having drinks with our VP. The next, everything that had been done, settled and buried in the past flashed onto the center stage of my life, alive again, here, in Stone Mountain, in this noisy bar.

I can only suppose my jaw dropped like some kind of idiot. I’d guess that everything that I’m about to tell you only took another five or ten seconds. I am quite sure, during that time, there was no way I was able to converse or maintain my composure.

The first thought that surfaced in my mental inventory was: OK, I’ve had a couple of drinks, and then too, I’m hung over, so I’m more easily confused. I’ve got to get a grip.

The second thing I thought of was: what are the odds this is actually happening? I mean, there I was in Stone Mountain, a smaller city in the hinterlands of the South, for only three days. Their lifestyle would rarely get them as far as Sparks or Carson City. My eyes were telling me, “that’s them!”

The third thing I thought: “If life is offering me a second chance, what the hell should I do about it?”

I apologize to you — I know this must be making little sense. With me, nothing is ever that simple. To explain what this meant, we have to go back a number of years.

This wasn’t about Janeen at all. It was all about Harry.

Every day, my heart had ached over our parting. We’d totally lost touch years earlier; I had no idea how to find him, and I’d tried. On the other hand, I always suspected it was probably for the best.

Back in those days, Harry and I were more than best friends. We were in love with each other. I told you, my story never turns out as simple as that; it would also be presumptuous to say we were lovers. “We are not like that,” we’d say to each other, and we’d laugh and tease and hint that some day we might go for something bolder.

It might have been a lot easier for me if Harry hadn’t egged me on. I’d been hopelessly in love with him, but, left to my own fears and uncertainty, I could have gone to my grave in the closet. We used to do a lot of heavy drinking together. These bouts sometimes ended in frightening arguments. When one is trying to maintain an impossible contradiction, and that very contradiction just so happens to be the keystone of the relationship, I can see now that no one should be surprised at such outcomes.

There were some wonderful times in those Reno years. There were also some horrible times, and we finally went our separate ways. There were many dark days when life didn’t seem worth living. He phoned out of the blue a year later. He’d walked out of Janeen’s life. He was in Louisiana with some guys. He was traveling under a pseudonym. He mentioned some business opportunity. There was a short pointless argument over money: I didn’t have any. He hung up without leaving a number. I never heard anything more about Harry again.

It took me many more years before I was able to deal with my own issues – until just a few months before this Stone Mountain training, as a matter of fact. I don’t know how Harry handled his, or if he ever did.

So, that year when I saw Harry on the dance floor, I found I still missed him all over again. He looked my way once while dancing with Janeen. I looked for a sign, and saw none. Since I was clean-cut and dressed in business attire, so far away from our native stomping grounds, maybe he wasn’t sure either.

How could I NOT know if this was Harry? Would I rather it would turn out to be somebody else? He was wearing his signature nylon windbreaker – and those sneakers with fluffy cotton socks. Anybody can wear those – but what are the odds of all of these coincidences together?

Blame it on the poor bar lighting, the noise, the crowd, my confusion, a few drinks, the presence of my business companion – but here I was, doubly paralyzed by indecision, and just that classic dictionary eerie, once-in-a-lifetime, super-realistic Déjà vu feeling.

“You pathetic fool,” I said to myself, “you’re desperate and confused. You’re seeing your past in the faces of complete strangers.” Tell me, what are the odds against finding two long-lost exact look-alikes, both together again, here on this dance floor, in this god-forsaken outpost at Stone Mountain, twenty-five hundred miles from home?

If you found yourself in this situation, what would you do? Cut in on the dance and say “Say, excuse me, aren’t you Harry?”

So much time had gone by. Should one act like this wasn’t happening at all?

I had that chance of a lifetime to know one way or the other, if I did something quickly. Of course, I could just let it slip by, forever out of reach. I remembered how delightfully thoughtful and considerate Harry could be. I remembered how volatile he could be. Here, as never before, I was the potentially unwelcome intruder, under unfamiliar circumstances, on unfamiliar turf. A scene at this point could be a catastrophe. I could always play it as a case of mistaken identity if I was wrong about this sighting.

My allowable ten seconds of slack-jawed gawping would be just about up.

Suddenly Mike said, “You know, it’s so noisy in here, why don’t we just meander back to the lobby and order up some dinner at the restaurant?”

That sounded great to me!

We got up and left. I didn’t look back. I didn’t go back alone, on that or the following evening. I’ll never know if there was a “rest of the story.”

Life just goes on, without regard for celebrants and mourners. In the years after that day, as I rebuilt from shattered foundations, life did get better and better. There have been some truly wonderful decades since those early days. It was all worth it.

Now that I’ve told you this story, I ask you: What if, that night, had I been bold, my boldness had made Harry and me best friends again? My wonderful decades that followed – would they never have happened?

I could tell you that native caution might have prevented me from making a big mistake that night. Out of politeness you might play along.

I could tell you that General Eisenhower held up the entire Allied invasion of Normandy for twenty-four hours, due to inclement weather, so some poor corporal could safely duck down, firmly fixed in a foxhole with tracer rounds whizzing overhead, but alive.  Each player made the same basic strategic decision; only the scale was different.

Neither notion still quite rings true with me. I know in my heart I was waffling and indecisive. Maybe in its own way that was a decision too.

I never grabbed that chance to try to make the past right and whole again. Was it, then, one of those truly great pivotal events, passing over my head, right past my unseeing eyes? I’ll never know. I still wonder from time to time how important that day was, but the real answer lies in a path I turned away from.

Someplace out beyond the Andromeda Galaxy, in the greater Magellanic Cloud perhaps, or maybe even in some other parallel universe beyond Stone Mountain, they say the odds are that eventually we’ll discover another Earth, and, in that mathematically and statistically grand scheme of things, it could come to pass there might be some couple, among the billions, that returns to that very dance floor, or one, you’d swear, that looked exactly like it. Are they, wherever they are, whether together or long gone upon their separate ways, asking their scientists and mathematicians: “what are the odds it could have been him?”

Is it ever too late to wish them well? Answers to the questions we ask too late might have changed life forever, even though I’m glad they didn’t. Would I really still want to know? I might have become happy in that world. I might have become embittered. I’m glad to have taken the default path — the path on which you and I happen to be talking now.

So I ask you, how can we have a pivotal event, and even a date for its occurrence, that may never actually have happened? What does it mean when we ask for intimate knowledge of the journey not taken?

When I was a youngster in sunny, blue-sky California, my dad used to press roses in December, into large volumes in the family library. Sometimes he mailed them to relatives shoveling snow in the East. Mostly, he just left them there. Years after he died, I happened to find one, dried and perfectly preserved between the leaves of a history volume. Perhaps this one meant something special to him. To me, the most I could make of it was a fanciful private entry in the cryptic journal of passage.

So, now do you think life sometimes just laughs at our silly pivotal events, important dates, and pressed roses?

And is action still everything, even when it’s no action at all?

short story by Alex Forbes ©June 6, 2009

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The Friends of Manny

Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly if they even roll a few more upon it. — Albert Schweitzer

One day we, who are Manny’s friends, got together and decided that Manny needed to get a girlfriend.

You see, this came about because Manny carried on so, at his birthday party: “You don’t know how hard it is for an unemployed man of sixty to find a decent chick.”

It was really all Manny’s doing.

Someone thought, “what about Maria”?

Maria was a girl in her thirties, a nice girl, really. The only problem with Maria, they said, was that she’d jumped from boyfriend to boyfriend for so long none of us could remember them all. These boyfriends, they were introduced, they shook hands, we said “nice to meet you”, and we never saw them again.

Some of those boyfriends were tough hombres, if you know what I mean.

One of them, they said, knew how to get you anything you wanted, and sometimes, if someone paid him, he did. When he did not join our little circle of friends either, no one said, “such a shame, he did not choose to be one of us.”

Maria was one of those girls who liked to be given everything she wanted. Maria loved to be loved. Maria loved to have fun. That was why, in Maria’s life, there was always a new guy.

“Who will show me how to have fun?” Maria would ask anyone who would listen. And she would laugh loudly, and her brown eyes would twinkle, in the mischievous way of one who is sharing the secret of Maria.

When a guy ran out of money, he stopped being fun. When he stoppped being fun, that was how Maria could see he didn’t love her any more. That’s why she left them, one by one. She broke a lot of hearts, but not because she was cruel. Not because they weren’t nice to her, and polite. Maria believed, when a guy doesn’t truly love you, it’s time to move on.

So we said to each other, what do we have against Manny?

Manny has no job, but he has some savings.

Manny has some gray hairs, but Manny doesn’t look sixty, either.

Manny doesn’t talk like an old man, he talks like a kid.

“That’s the problem,” someone said. “He doesn’t know when to stop talking.”

“That is because Manny is in love with himself. Everything is all about Manny.”

When he tells you how he bought some meat at the butcher’s, he tells you how he loves that meat, and how his mother used to cook it just so with sides of refried and rice for his birthday.

We all knew that story.

This obliges him to explain how he once did a favor for the butcher, so the butcher always owes him. And also he will tell you how he doesn’t even like this butcher, but the man is worth it because he sure knows his cuts of beef.

And this is all because somebody says, ‘please pass the meat’.

“I told you, that’s the problem with Manny,” someone said again.

Looking back, perhaps we were selfish, but what we decided is, we needed to get Manny out of our hair for a while.

So we set him up with Maria.

We all asked that someone, that one who first put the problem with Manny on the table, since you know the problem, maybe you are a step ahead, eh? You must know then, what is the solution?

“That is obvious”, he said.

“Before we arrange this meeting, we must take our friend Manny aside.”

“And we must tell him, Manny, about this Maria,” he smiled, “she is beautiful, but she is in love with herself.”

“So we will tell him: you, Manny, must talk with her,” he said to us, “and you must talk with her constantly.”

Here he smiled again. We were beginning to see it:

But here, you see, Manny, Don’t talk about yourself, talk about her. Don’t tell her about the year you rode the horses. Don’t tell her how much you like your car. And don’t tell her how much you spent when you got the inheritance.

Manny, for this to work, Maria needs a man to tell her how much he loves her. All the time. Manny, when you are entertaining friends, play the music your friends like to hear. And if this turns out to be the girl for you, you must tell her so, in some new way, all the time.

We all agreed, if any man could do this, was not Manny the one?

“To Manny,” we toasted, even though he was not even there.

With just this one perfect method, we could make Manny happy, we could open a little window of peace within our little group, and, who knows, we could even make Maria happy, maybe. A little more happiness in this world is a good thing, is it not?

Next month, Manny rejoined our little group.  And so we told him exactly what we together, all of us, had planned in this manner to tell him.

Everybody knows it is never wise to needlessly tempt fate, so one of us of course had already talked to Maria:

Manny has no job, but he has some savings: “Manny is well-off and doesn’t have to work any more.”

Manny has some gray hairs, but Manny doesn’t look sixty: “Manny takes care of himself and looks like a man in his thirties.”

Manny doesn’t talk like an old man, he talks like a kid: “You’ll like Manny. He is very young in spirit.”

Manny is in love with himself. It is all about Manny: “Manny’s only problem is, that when he likes you very much, all he wants to tell you about is how many ways he loves you.”

At first we thought we, Manny’s friends, had put together an affair arranged in heaven.

Manny and Maria took the Hawaii cruise. They romped in the Las Vegas casinos together. They did the cruise boat on Tahoe. Maria turned heads with her bikini on the beach. Manny always looked like a million bucks when they dined together, at the classiest establishments on the waterfront. And they dined often.

“She is the best thing that ever happened to me”, Manny told us.

“He is so sweet!” Maria told us.

After about six months, since neither of them worked, the money started running out. Manny had no more money. Especially, he had no money for any kind of ring.  So he was grateful when that subject stopped coming up. When Maria saw Manny’s undying love for her wither before her very eyes, she started seeing another guy on the side.

Not only did this break Manny’s heart, but everything was not exactly back to what it had been before, because now Manny could hardly cover the month-to-month rent.

Still, Maria kept coming  back to him, between boyfriends, and this lasted another six months.

The last time Manny saw Maria, another ungrateful boyfriend had skipped town. Maria was bitter with the world, and told Manny she, too, had decided the time was right to move on and start a new life somewhere else. She hoped, she said to him, he would be good in this, and understand.

The Package

“I only ask one thing, Manny,” she said. “For old time’s sake.”

“Before we met, one of my old boyfriends left town, and he left a package behind in my custody. He made me promise I would look after it for him. He said he would return for it, but he hasn’t, yet.”

“On the Greyhound I can take everything I can fit into this one suitcase, which is everything I need. But I cannot manage this one package. Will you promise to look after it for me, until I can come back for it?”

“What is in this package?”

“I do not know, but I promised it would be safe with me. Please, it is small, Manny, and it takes up no space in our closet. Would you be a dear, and just hold it for me until I can come back and see you, and I can claim it?”

“OK, Maria. Just for you.”

Manny never saw or heard from Maria again. That is why it took him a year to tell us about this package.

Even as the realization finally came to Manny, one day, that Maria was never coming back, eveything about that package irritated him. Maria had lied to him, even in this one last thing. Then too, it was not even her package. He did not know if there was a rightful owner. He did not know what was in the package.

He did not know, but  it could be valuable. It could be family keepsakes. It could be love letters. It was not very heavy, so it could not be gold, or coins, or some kind of treasure. Maybe, who knows, there could be some kind of paper money in it? Could it contain a clue about the real owner?

This package was about the size of a shoe box. It had been wrapped in some kind of heavy brown paper, possibly a wrapping made of brown grocery bags, securely taped all around with packaging tape. And it was tied with a kind of cheap but stout sisal parcel twine. The twine looked older than the package, and somewhat dirty, suggesting both that it had been handled often, and had been used before. There were no labels or marking of any kind on this package.

This package, it greatly annoyed Manny. It bothered and vexed him. It worked on him every day like a nettle. It was if this twine-and-brown-paper parcel was getting the best of him. Yes, the package had become an unwanted guest that would not go away. And no one could say where it really came from. Worst of all,  Manny had no way to give it away or ship it to someone else who could rightfully claim it.

The promise, like the package, had become such a burden, that no one  person should have to put up with it. He admitted to himself that much. Finally, there was nothing else left to do.

When a year was up, and nothing else had happened, Manny opened the package.

The Advice of Good Friends

Opening that package is why we were having this new meeting. It is why happy-go-lucky Manny, who never dealt with life first but always let things happen to him, actually asked us to have this meeting. And he swore us to secrecy before he would tell this part of the story. 

What Manny found in this package, we would not want to know, you understand. He said it made him frightened. He wrapped it up again and returned it to the closet.

Manny’s question to us was: what should he do with this unwanted package? What would you do?

If the package had contained somebody’s ear or hand, Manny would not ask us in this way. If the package contained a lot of money, that could be a problem too, but Manny would not ask in this way either, if he asked at all. What else do you think it could it be, but contraband?

Mind you, Manny has had his problems, to be sure, but he is not one who’s ever been in trouble with the law. He’s never had a speeding ticket. And he doesn’t drink. He doesn’t even smoke.

“If everything is what it sounds like, I would call the police immediately and let them handle it”, one person said.

“In that case you could be arrested. You spent all your money on her, so maybe she thought you could sell it, whatever it is”, another said.

“Suppose someone comes looking for it and finds you,” someone asked.

“If possession of this box is such a problem, then dump it all in the estuary at night, and be done with it”, said someone else. “Manny, you don’t know nothing about no package.”

Some didn’t ever respond to the big question.

Another said, “I wouldn’t be forced to make any decision at all. Why tip the balance?”

“Whatever else I did, I wouldn’t have told a soul”, said another.

“But you can keep my secret,” said Manny, “so what on earth should I do?”

Our little group talked about this into the early hours of the morning.

If it is something the law says you must not possess, you could get into a lot of trouble. They do not care how it happened to get into your closet. No, why should you risk your future on account of a couple of thoughtless jerks? Get rid of whatever it is NOW. If it is something, you know, that people buy and sell, don’t dig yourself in deeper by trying to sell it or even giving it away. You’ll just be setting yourself up to get shot, you know? And we’ll read about you in the Obits.

And then we asked each other, “What would we have done? Would you have even agreed to keep the package?” That was good for another hour.

Finally, we told him: So, we’re all agreed. It’s all in your hands. You’ve got to do something, Manny.

It was late. Manny and some of the others excused themselves and went home.

Just so you know, after this thing was done, Manny told us: he took that package down to the estuary late at night, and he came home without the package.

But tonight there were still three of us left in the smoke-filled living room.

Carlos, the one who had the least to say all evening, finally said that he had something he had to tell us.

“I found out how this all happened,” he told us. “But I had nothing to do with it. This is just what my girlfriend told me.”

Sometime after Tahoe, Maria knew she and Manny were not going to be an item very much longer.

Carlos’s girlfriend liked to get together with her own group of friends, just like we do. Most of the people in that group were not anybody we knew. They were not part of our group. But Maria was friends with some girls in that other group.

And Carlos’s girlfriend told Carlos this story:

When they asked Maria how she and Manny were doing together, they worked it out of her, piece by piece, how everything had gone downhill. Maria did not know how much longer she could stand this Manny. She confided she was going to leave him and start a new life, but she had another problem, and she asked that group for their advice:

Maria knew what was in this package. She was afraid of this package. And she asked the girls, what the hell she should do about it?

“So Maria lied”, we said.

“Yes,” Carlos said, “but my girlfriend did not tell me about this until last night, so, you can see, it was too late for me to tell Manny. What could I do?”

And, he told us, those girls also had talked about it all evening. What they said was very much like what we said:

If it is something the law says you must not possess, you could get into a lot of trouble. They do not care how it happened to get into your closet. No, why should you risk your future on account of a couple of thoughtless jerks? Get rid of whatever it is NOW. If it is something, you know, that people buy and sell, don’t dig yourself in deeper by trying to sell it or even giving it away. You’ll just be setting yourself up to get shot, you know? And we’ll read about you in the Obits.

So what did the girls’ group advise Maria to do about the package?

“Hell,” said Carlos.

“They told her, just leave the package with Manny, and skip town.”

short story by Alex Forbes ©May 29, 2009

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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The Small Thread

Fiction by Alex Forbes. The Small Thread, in Writing. Short story, about 12 pages, ©May 10, 2009.

Except for isolated observations drawn from personal experience, characters and events in this story are entirely fictional. Narrative on serious, life-threatening issues includes suicidal feelings, gay coming-out issues, firearms, and societal reactions to all those issues. The character “Patrick” narrates how he once faced a life-threatening crisis alone …  [more]

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