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Saturday, September 17, 2016

New story: Racing the Train

Racing the Train


Bob Carlton

It was 3:15 am when I got to the main highway. Running ghostly in the night, a freight train sped down the tracks that ran parallel to the road on the other side. I took a right and was soon keeping pace with the train, both of us southbound doing fifty. At this point I realized that in four and a half miles I would have to take a left and then wait at the crossing for the train to pass. No telling how long it was, or whether or not it would be stopped at the crossing, inching back and forth as cars coupled and uncoupled in some freight yard I couldn't even see. I might end up sitting there for quite a while. Then I noticed the engines were only a few car lengths ahead of me. If both of us hit that intersection at the same time, that could be a long wait indeed. Only one way around that.

Almost as soon as I decided to race the train I hit a red light. It changed quickly, and I was faced with a decision: drive at a leisurely pace and face an inevitable albeit shorter wait at the crossing, or try and get ahead of it and risk not only a longer delay if I don't get there in time, but also the very real possibility of getting pulled over for speeding on this deserted highway in the middle of the night. I floored it.

Just as I was catching back up to the locomotives, the highway took a slight curve westward, while the train continued in a straight line to the southeast. During daylight hours, the highway's alteration in course was almost imperceptible, and one could debate whether it was really the road itself which swung away from the tracks to such a degree, or if the tracks themselves did not veer off at a rather sharp angle at this point. I don't suppose it really matters. The fact was that the train was on a more direct course to our future point of intersection. As our paths diverged, the train shot off behind a line of trees in the distance. I was soon alone on the road, with no sense of either progress or regression. Until I turned left in two miles, when the railroad crossing would be one block away and directly in front of me, I could not gauge my position in relation to my opponent.

When I finally made that turn, no train was in sight. As I crossed the tracks I looked left and saw a headlight, though I could not really judge the distance. I was pleased with myself, though not nearly as much as I was three seconds later, when I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the flashing red lights and descending barrier arms announcing imminent arrival. I grinned widely, filled with a solitary and satisfying sense of triumph. It had been that close.

Two minutes later I pulled into the parking lot, right on time for a job I hate.

Bob Carlton lives and works in Leander, Texas.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wombat Juice

Wombat Juice was written in 2005, and published twice: 2009 in Delivered, and again in 2012 in Glassfire. Presented here for your enjoyment.

Wombat Juice
D.A. Cairns

            ‘I can’t tell you what’s in it. It’s a secret recipe,’ said Hartley Gregg to an appreciative and curious customer. ‘Why do you think people come here? The exotic and mysterious food we make, that’s why.’
            The customer slowly shook his head, disappointed but understanding, and returned his attention to the Chef’s special of the day, Boomerang Stew.
            ‘Enjoy,’ said Hartley smiling and bowing slightly before moving away to pander to his other customers.
            All his competitors used digital waitresses to take orders and automatons to deliver the meals to the tables because it was the most cost effective method, but Hartley liked to give people a choice. So from the three dimensional interactive menu displayed above the table at eye level, they could chose a real waitperson to come and serve them or just place their order electronically. Despite these necessary concessions to the modern restaurant business, Hartley ran an old fashioned establishment where the people who served contributed as much to the ambience of the restaurant as those who were served.  He liked to get around to the tables himself too whenever possible, to talk to people and make sure they were enjoying their dining experience at Sanctuary.
            At the bar, Hartley ordered a Wombat Juice for table three and smiled as he watched the barman prepare it. When he finished he placed the glass in Hartley’s hand and said, ‘First one, eh Boss?’
            ‘How do you think it will go down?’
            ‘We’ll soon find out.’
            As part of his drive and determination to be on the cutting edge of Australian cuisine, Hartley was always experimenting with new recipes. His father from whom he inherited the business would not have approved at all of all his son’s innovation. He was a traditionalist. A straight up and down, meat and three vegetables, football loving, beer swilling Aussie bloke who reckoned he knew what people wanted and that’s exactly what he gave them. That attitude might have worked in his father’s time but now the competition was so fierce that to be successful one had to have an edge. Hartley’s was food that one could not find anywhere else.
            When the Red Centre opened up to major development, including the construction and establishment of three entirely self contained satellite cities surrounding Alice Springs, many entrepreneurs were excited by the possibilities offered by a twenty first century gold rush. Hartley Gregg was one of these, but he came to his fortune via an unexpected route.
            Long a fan of kangaroo meat, especially barbecued steaks, Hartley had an idea that perhaps some of Australia’s other native animals would also make exotic and sumptuous fare. The problem was, all but the kangaroo, which was considered a pest throughout most of the nation particularly to farmers, were protected by conservation laws. They could not be captured or hurt let alone killed and eaten by hungry or curious humans.
            In the southernmost of these new satellite cities, the imaginatively titled Sandtown, was a native wildlife sanctuary maintained by private sponsorships and grants. Befriending the chief zoologist there, Hartley learned of the development of a new drug designed to improve the breeding success of endangered native species. The engineers of this pill, had in mind the repopulation of large sections of Australia with native animals. Hartley, however saw another use for a possible excess production of native animals.
            ‘What do you think of that?’ said Hartley as he placed the tall glass of Wombat Juice on the table in front of a wide businessman who sat straining at the seams of his dark suit.
            ‘It looks like fruit juice.’
            ‘What did you expect? A frothy brown liquid with hair in it?’
            An equally rotund lady sitting opposite the man snorted her disapproval. ‘Mr Gregg, please, I’m trying to eat.’
            The fat man dismissed his partner with a wave of his fat hand and laughed heartily. ‘You kill me Hartley,’ he said.
                ‘Go on and try it.’
            He lifted the glass slowly to his lips and sniffed at it as though it were fine wine then sipped and swallowed some. A look of bewildered satisfaction came over his fat face and he smiled and said, ‘Damn that’s a peculiar flavor.’ He lifted the glass to eye level and stared at its contents. ‘I’ve never tasted anything like it.’
            ‘Do you like it?’
            ‘I do, Hartley, I do,’ said the man. Pointing his glass at his partner, he added, ‘Better get another one over here for my lady.’
            Hartley nodded, smiling then turned and walked away.
            Success! Winning the approval of the fat man, whom he had hoped would be the first to sample his new creation, was a coup for Hartley. The man was not simply another valued regular customer, he was the Chief Magistrate for the satellite cities. His opinion counted and those he favored, were truly favored. His patronage had helped Hartley establish The Sanctuary Restaurant in the first place, and thereafter forge for himself the reputation of being the finest restauranter in the country.
            Winking to the barman as he passed on his way to the kitchen, Hartley congratulated himself. The initial results of the trials of the new breeding drug were very positive and so, ignoring possoms and koalas due to their cute and cuddly factor, he started to talk up the likelihood of a plague of hairy-nosed wombats. Although the wonder breeding drug eventually failed on all species, Hartley wanted to do something with wombats. So before the results of the trial of the breeding drug were announced, he fabricated a story and released it through his media contacts.
The spin was that for some completely bemusing reason the breeding program had been hyper productive with wombats and now the tubby native beasts, verging  extinction at the beginning of the twenty first century, were proliferating like rabbits. The problem was how to use the surplus of wombats. Zoos all over the world wanted them, intending to populate their own nations with these distinctive Australian citizens, and there was significant interest in them for scientific testing and research but still there were too many. Having to cull a creature once so close to extinction was a bizarre twist of fate.
            What about serving them up on the dinner tables of The Sanctuary’s patrons. Hartley cleverly ruled that out on the grounds that it was theoretically good but highly problematic. Wombat meat was tough, foul smelling and very high in fat. Good for pet food maybe, but not for people. These facts avoided the reality of not having any wombats. Still the idea persisted that some product may be attained and marketed, as being made from wombats.
            Wombat Juice was his brainchild and now its inevitable popularity would ensure he stayed on top, and that was exactly where Hartley Gregg wanted to be.
            The next night everyone demanded Wombat Juice. Hartley was stuck behind the bar helping to prepare the hottest new drink on the menu when a film crew arrived at Sanctuary wanting to do a story for the evening news. Hartley quickly ordered his security automatons to refuse them entry.
Despite the obvious success of word of mouth, Hartley did want to get the word out about Wombat Juice to as many people in as short a time as possible, so he consented to an interview with a journalist he knew personally. She and her photographer were instructed to remain seated at the table during the interview and asked to keep it brief.
Passing table four on his way back to the bar, Hartley took another order for Wombat Juice which he delivered to the overworked barman.
‘Boss, I need a hand here.’
‘Right,’ said Hartley graciously, ‘I’ll do this one myself, no problem.’  To the empty drink shaker he added sliced mango and pineapple, then a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of fresh strawberries followed by one shot of white rum and another of vodka.
‘Don’t forget the Wombat, Boss.’
Hartley smiled at his cheeky barman as he reached under the bar for a bottle of thick brown liquid labeled Wombat. He popped the lid and poured it in. ‘Milo milk and Vegemite. Ridgey didge, my friend,’ he said as he switched on the blender and watched his secret concoction evolve before his eyes. ‘Truly Australian product.’
‘How long do you reckon it will take someone to figure it out?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Hartley, ‘but we’ll make a packet of money and have some fun while we’re waiting, won’t we?’
‘Yeah. Hey what about all the real wombats?’
Hartley smiled. ‘So you believed the story about the hairy-nosed wombat population explosion did you?’
The barman shook his head and laughed. ‘You got me there Boss. You got me there.’

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The First Six Months

Some six months after the launch of Square Pegs e-zine, I have to report on its sadly underwhelming performance. The anticipated flood of submissions has been less than a trickle, and I have resorted to publishing some of my own stories to keep the site active.

Duotrope has contacted me about my weekly publishing schedule which hasn't eventuated, and as usual I am left scratching my head as to why my endeavours do not flourish. As far as I know I am the only editor who has video submissions guidelines, and that alone should have attracted more attention. Nevertheless, I persist, as I have done for many years.

I'm reminded of God's chat with Joan Baxter in the diner scene from Evan Almighty as she struggles to cope with the what's happening to her husband, and her life. "Let me ask you something,' says God in the guise of a waiter. "If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?"

Square Pegs is open and I am here, ready to receive and read your submissions. Publishing will be on an irregular basis depending on the quality and quantity of the stories, and my time.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Place of Refuge

I wrote this story in 2002, and its publication in The School Magazine in 2003 remains one of the watershed moments in my writing career. It was four years after I started pursuing writing earnestly, with the ultimate goal of becoming a full time writer.

Being paid for my work was a thrill. Still is. A Place of Refuge has since been re published three times in The School Magazine (2007 & 2015) and in Complex Fairy Tales (2015).

A Place of Refuge by D.A.Cairns

‘I’m so tired of this weather,’ said Spider.

‘Me too,’ agreed Beetle. ‘I want to be out running around in the sweet, long grass feeling the sun on my back.’ She extended and beat her wings suddenly out of frustration.

‘Calm down,’ said Spider. ‘It can’t rain forever.’

‘It feels like forever already,’ said Fly, coming in to land softly beside Spider.

Watching Fly land and settle himself, Beetle tried to control a shiver of disgust. Flies are so ugly, she thought, so unpleasant, I feel like flying away. Politeness restrained her.Perhaps, she wondered, spiders find flies equally disgusting to look at and that’s why they eat them. They couldn’t possibly taste good.

‘Aren’t you going to say hell to me, Beetle?’

‘Hello,’ said Beetle in the coldest, most unfriendly voice she could muster.

‘I was just knocked down by a raindrop,’ said Fly.

‘Silly to be out trying to fly in the rain, don’t you think?’ sneered Beetle.

Spider looked at Beetle and then back at Fly, wondering how long it would be before Beetle’s rudeness caused Fly to lose his cool. They might even kill each other, thought Spider happily.

‘I had to try to get home between showers because my wife was expecting me,’ said Fly.

‘It’s been pouring rain continuously for days,’ said Beetle. ‘How could you have possibly flown in between showers?’

‘I’ve been waiting in here for days,’ said Spider. ‘Putting up with the cold and the smell and the occasional human. It could have stopped raining briefly.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Beetle to them both. Then she said directly to Fly. ‘You’ve been buzzing around inside liquor bottles again. You’re drunk!’

‘Now listen here!’ said Fly raising his voice and twitching.

‘Come on, my friends,’ said Spider. ‘As we are stuck in here until the rain stops, why don’t we try to get on. It’ll make it so much easier. I mean it’s bad enough being stuck in here without having to listen to you two argue.’

‘I just don’t like flies,’ said Beetle to Spider loud enough for Fly to hear. ‘No wonder humans are always trying to squash them or poison them.’

Spider reared up on his back four legs. ‘Who cares what humans think or what they do?’

‘That’s right, Spider,’ said Fly. ‘Who cares? We were around long before they came along and we’ll probably be here for a long time after they’ve gone.’

Beetle eyed Fly, then shuffled around to face Spider who was stretching his long hairy legs in all directions. Spiders aren’t exactly the most attractive species either, thought Beetle, but at least they have decent manners, and my, what wonderful engineers they are. Those beautiful webs!

‘It’s not true,’ Beetle said, ‘that we have been here longer than humans. Everyone knows humans came first and then we came along with all the other creatures and humans gave us our names.’

‘You are so stupid to believe that, Beetle,’ said Fly. ‘You think like a baby – I suppose you still believe in Santa Bug.’

‘I’ve had enough. I’m sorry Spider, but I am going to have to leave. It was nice chatting with you until Fly came along,’ Beetle said, staring at Fly for as long as she could stand the sight of him.

Fly buzzed right up to Beetle’s face but backed off when Spider reared up again to threaten him.

‘I’m sorry too,’ said Spider as he watched Beetle zoom up towards the gap in the toilet block between the roof and the wall. ‘Really sorry.’

Fly watched Beetle as she flew straight into a web and was helplessly entangled before she knew what had happened.

‘Excuse me,’ said Spider to Fly. ‘It’s lunchtime.’

‘Sure,’  said Fly suddenly worried about spending too much more time in this place of refuge. ‘I have to get going, anyway.’

‘What about the rain?’ called out Spider as he scurried up the wall towards Beetle who was lying still, trapped in his beautiful web.
Fly ignored the question as he buzzed upwards and headed for another gap in the toilet block wall. He could faintly hear Spider speaking over the sound of his own wings beating but he didn’t care to listen. He just wanted to get out of there alive and home to his wife and children.

Spider has spun intricate traps across all but one of the exits from the toilet block. Unfortunately, Fly chose incorrectly.

Now ensnared and still, Fly cold hear Spider talking to Beetle.

‘It’s nothing personal, Beetle.’

Beetle thrashed around in one last desperate attempt to free herself, but Spider was soon upon her, and Fly watched in silence knowing he was next.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Darkness of Light

The Darkness of Light

A sliver of light pierces the blinds and scars her eyelids. She feels as though she has not slept at all, although she must have drifted away into the blissful unconsciousness of slumber at some point. Sleep eludes her despite her craving for it. Even the pills which she obtains as often as she can manage with the increased scrutiny of doctors, only provide temporary relief. The alcohol she washes them down with probably does not help. This miserable cycle is all she knows, and she chose it so she cannot complain.

Not for the first time or the last, she sees James’ face. His kind smile, the happiness which radiates from every pore in his slightly tanned flesh. The smile which loves her, forgives her, and encourages her. The same smile which she has persistently tried to destroy. An oft repeated conversation wallows out from within the recesses of her memory.

‘A measure of politeness is not too much to ask for, is it?’ said James. ‘It’s not that hard to smile and say hello.’

‘I’m not a nice person,’ she replied. ‘I can’t sweet talk. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad because I can’t change. I’m bad okay? That’s it.’

James stepped close to her and placed his hands upon her shoulders.

‘Don’t say another word, or I’m going to leave right now. I have had enough.’ She shrugged out of his grasp, ignoring the hurt in his eyes and focused on her own pain, and comforted herself with the fact that she was bad and she thoroughly deserved the misery to which she now clung. It was the only solid ground in her sorry existence: her anchor.

She turned away from James and busied herself with the dishes which had piled up in the sink. She knew he had only not done them because he was respecting her wishes for peace and quiet in the mornings. Feeling his gaze on her, she said, ‘Leave me alone,‘ she said. ‘I have to clean the house. That’s what I’m here for: to serve you and to fuck you!’

She knows it isn’t true. It wasn’t true when she said it then or any of the countless other times she had said it. James is a decent man: loving, honest and caring. He has only ever tried to help her. Despite his shortcomings, and the frequent and unjustified tongue lashings she has given him, he has remained faithful and gracious. She doesn’t deserve him. He’s too good.

Flinging, the doona off her and across the bed, she rises and enters the bathroom. Every step evokes a memory, every breath a painful reminder of her hopelessness. James is already awake as usual, having risen early for his morning run. The sounds of breakfast making drift down the hall. It is normal everyday noise, but she will tell him to be quiet before she says good morning to him. Once finished showering, she dresses and ties her hair without once looking at herself in the mirror. She only ever sees disaster reflected in the glass: her figure gone, her face aging, her broken heart advertising its desolation through the windows of her tired eyes.

When she reaches the kitchen, James turns to look at her and smiles. ‘Good morning.’

‘You’re too noisy,’ she replies.

James shrugs, and approaches her. ‘Give me a cuddle beautiful.’
In his arms she feels warm. His passion for her burns her skin and eventually she has to break free, hoping she held the pose long enough to satisfy him in his delusion that they are happy and have a future. She goes to close the blinds James has opened as he always does when he wakes. He likes the light while she finds it intrusive. Knowing that no one can see inside their private world, does not stop her from believing that they can.

‘It’s nice outside,’ says James. ‘A nice sunny day, and the air is fresh. It’s a little stuffy in here.’

‘I like my privacy.’

‘You can have privacy without being in the dark all the time, and besides think of the money saved on electricity bills with the lights off instead of on during the day.’

Glaring at him, she attacks his parsimony. ‘That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Money. Money. Money.’

James appears ready to retort, probably along the lines of how she rails against him for leaving lights on and using the remote controlled garage door to enter the house, instead of using the front door.

‘You’re stingy, and I’m sick of it,’ she says. ‘I like my privacy. It doesn’t matter about the money.’

They have serious money problems because of her profligacy. She buys him things he does not need, and pushes money through poker machines as though the notes grow on trees in their backyard. She does not even like those machines, and does not understand why she wastes money on them. Neither does James, but he no longer says anything. They split their accounts some time ago, because she said she was tired of paying all his bills. She knows they are mutual bills, but she has never been able to bring herself to trust him enough to use the words ‘us’ and ‘ours’. It is a mystery why he stays. She starves him of sex, but is extremely proficient when she does consent. She makes him laugh sometimes, and she buys him nice clothes to wear, even though she knows he doesn’t need them and they can’t afford them. Even if they are struggling, it is important to her to maintain a good show of prosperity. James doesn’t seem to understand.

She remembers another all too familiar conversation, the like of which had been repeated so often, they could easily have played a recording and saved their strength.

‘Our business is our business. Our problems are our problems. That was how I was raised. That is my family. Your family is different. What goes on between us, stays between us. It’s not for your mum or your dad or your sister, or for the neighbours to enjoy thanks to your loud voice. I don’t know how many times I have told you that I like my privacy, and if you can’t respect that then get out of my life.’

James held her gaze. Confident and calm as ever, he said, ‘The neighbours can’t hear anything, and they don’t care anyway. They have their own problems.’

‘Leave me alone, James. I’m tired.’

She is tired all the time due to a lack of sleep, and the exhaustion caused by depression and anxiety, but this is also how she gets out of longer discussions with James. She is not at all interested in his logic or his common sense. Her paranoia fuels her need to reject rationality. She’s been treated so badly by the previous men in her life, that James’ genuine care for her barely registers. He rarely raises his voice or swears at her, and he has never abused her either with his mouth or his hands. It was a mistake inviting him into her life though, and she feels guilty for ruining his, on top of everything else she has done to underpin the deep vein of regret which courses through her bones. She is a lost cause and she knows it. The problem is how to make James see that, and to get him out of her life. It doesn’t help that on occasions, sometimes for a whole day or even a couple of days in a row they have a relationship which is world beating. They have experienced great joy together. The day they received a phone call from the real estate agent to tell them their application for the townhouse they really loved and wanted, had been approved. The time they went to a Big Bash League T20 cricket match and roared and cheered their way through three hours of action which led to an exciting victory for their team. Their trip to Auckland for New Year’s Eve.

However, such times of joy were illusions, masking the truth of their pitiful excuse for a relationship. She is unlovable and growing increasingly annoyed by James’ dogged determination to love her. She’s tried being direct with him, and simply swearing at him until she was blue in the face, but all that did was make him shake his head while tears rolled down his flushed cheeks. The next day he would be all smiles and sweetness again, and she would play along for a little longer. It is cruel. Very cruel, but it is James’ fault. If cannot take a hint of the magnitude of her regular vitriolic tirades, then he can only blame himself for his unhappiness.

‘On the subject of money,’ says James gingerly as though he is afraid of breaking something, or fanning to life the flames of her latent rage.

She rolls her eyes and sighs loudly. ‘Now what?’

James shakes his head. ‘Never mind.’

‘My life is bad enough already, James. All you do is take, take, take. I’ve got nothing, so don’t ask me for anything, alright?’

‘Okay. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I do worry. That’s all I do. My life is shit, and you’re not helping, okay.’

It’s not a question, so she doesn’t wait for his answer, but marches past him down the hall, and throws another familiar little quip towards him as she goes. ‘I’ll be upstairs.’

In bed, where she spends most of her time either on Facebook, or trying to sleep, she wonders why James carries on with this charade. How the hell can she cleave him out of her life? What will it take for him to finally accept the futility of pursuing this relationship? Why won’t he leave her alone? It’s bloody-minded devotion, that’s all. Not real love. He’s using her for sex and money, and so she can cook and clean for him. She makes him look good. Is a ready made ego booster. He’s probably addicted to that, and the overwhelming pulse of his masculinity derived from the multiple orgasms she fakes for him.

The next day, when she wakes up, James has already left for work. He kissed her cheek and told her he loved her before he left while she pretended to be asleep. That’s how it always goes. She readies herself for work, and checks her phone: finding a love note from James in her inbox. Kiss. Hug. Kiss. Hug. She doesn’t bother replying.

Arriving home that evening, she opens the door, and notices James’ shoes are missing from the stand in the hall. The kitchen is spotless and the counter uncluttered. Her stomach constricts. her hand trembles as she reaches for a single sheet of paper lying there. When she finishes reading the farewell note from James which he has worded with typical craftsmanship, she scrunches it up and tosses it in the bin. His final message expresses loving concern for her, and advises her to call him if she misses him, or if she wants him to come back. She misses him already, but as she closes all the blinds, blocking out the summer evening light, she knows she will not call. Then she goes upstairs and settles in the darkness.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Company does not always cure loneliness.

 Who She Wasn’t


  Scott Archer Jones

I admit it, I ran away. After I was sacked in my mid-fifties and I drove my wife back into the arms of her daddy's money, I had no way back to what I had done well in my life. There wasn’t even a way to get a new job—in 2009 laid-off managers with few friends were unemployable. Because I had a little money I rented a cheap tumbling-down house on the river in the cottonwoods, miles northwest of Albuquerque and the scenes of my failure. I waited there for a job to find me. The house was just upstream from Consuela Romero, the woman I would destroy.

I was picking up my mail at the boxes on the road when she first spoke to me, in the early summer just as the sporadic rains finish. She approached me like a bird about to fly up and away. “Excuse me? You’re my new neighbor?”

“Depends I suppose on where you live and where I do.” It was easy to be smart-ass at first, before she fell under my dominance and into my imagination.

She took it seriously. “You shouldn’t pretend, señor. We have seen each other. I am Consuela.” She offered her small brown hand, but she didn't look at me—she gazed at the dust down to her right. Maybe she didn’t like men thirty years older. Grandfathers.
“Right you are. I’m pleased to meet you, Connie. My name is Charles. I’ve admired your place as I drove by. Mine is run down.”

“You rent from Ramon? He’s a nice person if you’ve been here for a while. He probably won’t fix anything. But he might help you, if you were doing it.”

I told her I didn’t care enough to fix up the Gutierrez place, but that I did wish I had a garden like hers. “You’re out in the garden all the time—you must really like it.”

“No, Señor Carlos. It’s just part of the old ways. I do it to honor my mother and father, and my grandparents. It is my grandfather's house.”

“I’m sorry, but I prefer to be called Charles.”

“Sí, I understand.” She tried it out. “Charles.”

“You live with your parents?”

“No, they have all gone now. I live by myself.”

Reflecting back on it, I was wrong to always call her Connie. It was my first failure of acknowledgement.

A week later she drove up to my house. I stepped out past my tattered screen door to greet her, leaned on the front of the adobe, breathed in the dust raised by her truck. She was in silhouette—I was squinting into the bright sun. “Here. I’ve brought you something.” She handed me a paper bag, then stood twisting the end of her belt back and forth.

I peered into the sack, picking out vegetables—early squash, early tomatoes, cilantro and fresh lettuce. I thanked her and thanked her again, enjoying myself as I played her.
“De nada,” she said, but it was something, not nothing. While I handled the sack, I worked around to the right and sneaked glances at her. Not the country-club type of woman I liked.

“I tell you what, Connie, I can cook a bit. Why don’t you come back for dinner? I’ll make pasta with a cilantro pesto. We can use these things up while they’re really fresh.”

She turned away from me and stared into the distance. I think she was considering the offer, and considering also who made the offer. She was shorter than I and thin to the point of pain. It was her hair that got me—black and shining as obsidian. Unlike me, she didn’t dress in town clothes but in the denims of a field worker, under an old straw hat. I wondered what it would be like, to cut myself on those sharp angles and jutting bones.

She said, in a mouse's voice, “Okay.” She turned and slipped back to her truck. I shouted. “Let's say at six!” But she didn't answer. In that moment, she had given in. I think she knew where it would end. But she was that lonely.

After that, we were like the river below us, roiling swift towards a sea beyond. Anytime the bugs in my head were too much, I reached out to find her fluid skin beneath my hand, there in my room under the old window. Her hair flowed out on the pillow, shining in the desert moon, smelling of soap, of rosemary.

If she never admitted we were together, I didn’t want to know. I ignored her quirks, like how she fiddled with her fork endlessly, the long silences. And the way she wouldn't look me in the eyes. A shame. They were beautiful eyes, if a little bruised deep down.

At times she came across so childish. She sat on the edge of the bed wrapped in the sheet—after I had strained my way to a sweaty finish. Not talking, hunching her shoulders. She would leave me in my bed, to go sleep alone in her grandfather's house. That was the thing I resented, that declaration of shame.

She didn't need a social life—but I did. We went out to dinner in the village whenever my budget could afford it. I introduced her to my new friends—I had been in sales, I knew how to attach friends to me like limpets. I dressed her in the style I liked—bought her a couple of summer dresses and accessorized her. She rebelled at the white one, I thought, because of its plunging neckline. “Charles, que meustra demasiado y—the color of death.”

“I like it, Connie. You look great in white.”

“The old ones will not like it.”

No one I knew had ever said things like that. Her superstition embarrassed me. A creepy idea, dead people watching over us.

We flowed on like that, two streams half-coiled together, through the summer and winter and into the time where the snow pack melts and the rivers wake up. She would come to me in the morning and make my breakfast, then disappear for the day. At dusk, she would be there with whatever pitiful offering of food she could make and we would cook together while I drank. And talked. I told her of my wild plans, for a new company, for an old friend in Chicago who would surely hire me, for a way to turn my little stake into a fortune as soon as the market came back. Sometimes she would touch my hand, and I would fall silent. That was the only time I surrendered command.

I claimed it was the priest’s fault for a long time. He was perched there on her porch that early spring day when I dropped her off, at her grandfather's house. The priest brought the dusty black clothes and piercing stare of another century with him. She walked up to her porch, wearing a new white dress I had bought. I could tell by the way she skittered up to the door that she would be upset for days, more twitchy, even quieter than usual. She didn't come to me that evening. Only the next morning when I drove down to her house did I learn something about her. Her actions told me that day what I had never asked. She told me a little of who she had been, and what she had wanted.

An empty white dress fluttered from the branch of a tall tree beside the house. Shoes and underwear, pitiful cotton, lay beneath it in the soft sunshine. The river ran wild below, just across a short meadow, filled with meltwater and the rippling trace of an unknown woman.

About the author
Scott Archer Jones currently lives in New Mexico, after stints in Louisiana, Texas, the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway. He is on the masthead at the Prague Revue, and launched a novel last year with Southern Yellow Pine, Jupiter and Gilgamesh, a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jupiter was a finalist in the 2014 New Mexico-Arizona Book awards in four categories and won a 2015 Bronze IPPY and a 2015 FAPA Silver President's Award. His novel The Big Wheel arrived in March and received a Silver and Gold President's Award. Fomite Books will publish A Rising Tide of People Swept Away in 2016.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The most exciting new online short story magazine ever

Okay, that is a little bit of an exaggeration, but I am excited to be finally bringing to life an idea I have had for some time now. All I need now is your stories. Square Pegs is open for submissions and I can't wait to read your work. 

You can do the usual thing and read the submission guidelines, or you can watch my innovative submission guidelines video. I will start publishing stories as soon as I have what I'm looking for, and following the very first, I plan to publish a new one each and every week.