Winter Wanderland

Philadelphia. Circa 1989. Mid-January. Massive mounds of filthy, encrusted snow lined the slick streets. The air was numbingly cold. Valerie wished she had worn an extra pair of socks. Her feet were starting to feel the burn of the cold by now. Heading into the frigid wind, she pushed her thick scarf up over her mouth and nose, with an awkward mittened hand. Her eyes watered, and her nose was starting to run. Miserable. It was miserable. The depths of an East coast winter. The aftermath of the holidays. Dead and cold. Bitter and cruel. Monotone and lifeless.

Valerie had moved there 2 years earlier to take a job at a prestigious university library. It was really her first professional job, and she loved it. However, the pay was meager, since she was entry level, and there wasn’t much room for advancement in the near future. Needless to say, between her rent, bills and basics, she was always strapped for cash. In addition, she had a looming college loan to pay off, and it was already starting to accrue interest. Every Sunday she would scour the paper, looking for odd jobs to supplement her income. Occasionally, she would find a one-day gig cleaning someone’s closet, or doing housework. She even had a job painting apartments on weekends for a couple of months with an artist from Croatia (Yugoslavia). But these were all temporary, and inevitably she ended up back at square one over and over again.

This Sunday, she was on her way to interview for a job at a day spa. The ad said that they would train the right person to do massage. She thought this sounded perfect, since the hours were flexible and there were cash tips to be made as well. When she had called, the woman had sounded eager to meet her, and they had set up the interview for the same afternoon. She headed there with mixed feelings of curiosity, hope and a bit of trepidation. She had been walking for 15 minutes, which felt like an eternity in the frigid air. Finally, she could see the building ahead. It was located above a laundry mat, just like the woman had told her. She could see the delapidated building, with its grimy fluorescent lit laundry-mat glowing at street level. Dim lights were flickered in the upper windows.

As she crossed the street towards the address, she saw the small entryway. As the heavy door swiftly slammed with a vacuum seal, she welcomed the blast of hot air surrounding her. She pressed the ancient metal buzzer that said “Day Spa”. There was a static noise, and a woman’s garbled voice told her to come upstairs. The latch released, and she pushed open the second door to enter into the dingy hallway.

She suddenly felt broiling hot. Taking off her mittens and scarf, she stuffed them into her backpack, before heading up the rickety wooden stairway. A musty smell permeated the hall, along with a hint of Lisol. Once she reached the landing, with it’s faded and torn wallpapered hall, she saw a faded red door at the end of the hall that just said “spa” in small uneven vinyl blue letters. As she walked over, the door opened. A very young woman, maybe 18, looked her up and down. “Valerie?, You are here for job?”, she asked with a heavy eastern European accent. Valerie told her yes, and that she had an interview with Marie. The girl lead her into the waiting area, which was lit only by one tiny cheap looking table lamp. Next to the lamp was a lopsided miniature Christmas tree with strands of multi-color lights sloppily wrapped around it. There were a few holiday greeting cards under the tree and one awkwardly stuck between the branches. The young woman told Valerie her name was Irene, and that she would need to wait for the boss, Marie.

Valerie followed her through the waiting area, down a dreary hall, into a fluorescently lit laundry room, where there were a couple of other girls. One sat on the dryer, smoking a cigarette, and the other sat on a stool folding towels. They both looked tired, barely acknowledging her as she walked in. The one with the cigarette, glanced up long enough to give Valerie a dirty look, and proceeded to blow smoke in her direction with a hard stare. Irene, opened a mini-fridge in the corner and took out a can of Tab. She passed it to Valerie, and told her to sit down and wait until Marie came out. Valerie sat down, sipping her soda. She took her scarf from her backpack, and folded it slowly, wrapping her mittens inside of it. Mostly because she wanted to seem busy, and avoid eye contact with the other girls. The air was tense. The only sound was the dryer, and a small radio playing top 40 hits from the 80’s.

Finally, she heard a door open down the hall and footsteps, along with the sound of a man and woman talking and laughing. Then the front door opened and shut. She heard the sound of heavy heels on the wood floor, and looked up to see a stocky blonde woman, wearing a cowboy hat. Her shirt was unbuttoned to reveal an ample cleavage sprinkled with freckles. It was tucked into a pair of tightly belted high-waisted jeans. Everything was very snug, accentuating her curvaceous figure. She looked unnaturally tan, and this was set off by her frosted pink lipstick, and heavily lined sparkling blue eyes peering out from under the brim of the hat. Valerie got up and the woman laughed, and said, “Hi, I’m Marie, sorry you had to wait, but you know how it goes.” She smiled and flashed a smile revealing a diamond imbedded front tooth. Valerie reached into her backpack, and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Marie. “This is my resume.” She told her. Marie laughed loudly. “Honey, I don’t need that! Follow me, and lemme tell you about the job.”

Valerie followed her through the waiting area, down another darkened hallway. Marie’s clunky platform wooden clogs lead the way along the floorboards. She opened a door to the left and let Valerie into a windowless room, which was all white. There was a massage table in the middle, and a bamboo screen on the side. On another side table stood a container of Clubman talc, and a large bottle of generic baby oil. Marie hoisted herself up onto the massage table, letting her clogs fall loudly to the floor. She looked at Valerie seriously, “Okay honey, listen. This is a massage parlor. You gotta give a good massage. I could interview you, but what I need to know is can you give a decent massage. So, basically, what I’m saying, is, you gotta give me a massage, and then I’ll know if you can do the job. After you finish, I’ll give you one.”

Valerie felt like leaving, but it was so cold out, and what could it hurt to give this lady a massage anyhow. She quickly justified the odd interview request, deciding that it might be worth it if she could make some money here. Anyhow, Marie was already taking her shirt off. Then, she took off her hat, stuffing the shirt inside of it, and tossed to the far corner of the room. Next, she stood for a moment, swiftly unfastened the tooled leather belt, and peeled off the jeans, throwing them over the bamboo screen. She kept the high-cut shiny red panties and giant matching brassiere on. Valerie let out a barely audible sigh of relief. Marie climbed onto the table, flipping onto her stomach, saying, “okay sweetheart, go ahead, gimme all you got.” Valerie, pushed up her sweater sleeves, and reached for the baby oil. She warmed it between her hands and took a deep breath. She massaged Marie’s thick freckled shoulders and neck, being careful to move the bleached blonde hair out of the way. Beneath the hair was a large faded tattoo of a rabbit on rollerskates, with the name “Lou” beneath it. Valerie kneaded deeply and slowly over the dense upper back, being sure to take her time. Marie moaned, and said “Oh, yeah, baby. That’s what I’m talkin’ bout. Mmm hmmm, you know what? You’re a natural. I can tell. Can you just massage my legs a bit and then we can switch.”

Valerie, massaged her thighs, with long sweeping strokes, steering clear of the panty line area. Meanwhile, she asked Marie, “so, um, how does it work in here? I mean, what kind of massage do you offer clients. Do I have to learn Swedish, or other types? How do they pay?”  Marie sighed. “Oh yeah, I practically forgot about the fact that you’re here about the job, I was gettin’ so relaxed up in here. Well, basically it’s up to you how much money you gonna make, you know.” Valerie asked what she meant. Marie laughed. “You know, some guys they like you to dress up like a nurse, or whatever, you know. You can say yes, or no. But, if you really wanna make the big money, you know what I mean, um, yeah you can do what you want. You know. I can’t tell you, ‘cause it’s really up to you, but you know what I’m sayin’.”

Marie let out a heavy smoker’s cough, saying, “You can stop now, it’s my turn, lemme show you how its’ done.” Valerie quickly answered, “no, thanks, it’s okay, I got it. I have to get going.” Marie smiled, “oh, yeah, well, baby, it’s your loss. Anyhow, if you want the job, you got it. And, did I mention it’s all cash? Yeah, honey, in this business you can walk out of here after every shift with a fat wallet if you play your cards right. You know what I mean. Alls you gotta pay out is a house fee flat, or do a 50/50 cut, the choice is yours. Most girls pay the house flat fee. You keep the rest. Tips are really up to how happy you make the client. You know what I mean.“ Winking a heavily lashed eye, she laughed boisterously, as she fluffed out her big blonde hair. Valerie, laughed too, and told her that she would think it over. Marie, got back into her outfit, adjusting the cowboy hat on her head. She climbed into her clogs and opened the door into the hall, allowing Valerie to exit first. As she walked into the hallway, the young girl who had answered the door, Irene, passed by, headed towards another massage room, followed by a client, a 60 something man, with a large protruding stomach and thinning hair. He had sunglasses on, which she found odd, considering how dark it was in this place. As they got to the waiting area, Marie excitedly whispered to her, “that guy there, well, you know who that is, right?  He spends a shitload of cash up in here. He’s one of our top clients. We got plenty, honey. Politicians, cops, traders, rockstars, all kinds of famous rich guys. I’m telling you, kid, you can do real good in here. Might not look like much, but what you see ain’t always what is seems, you know. You think it over, and call me. You won’t regret it. I can guarantee it.”

Valerie thanked her, as she pulled on her down coat, and wrapping the scarf around her head. She grabbed the mittens out of the backpack, making sure she was well protected before heading down the hallway towards the stairs. She could see it was getting dark out already as she reached the foyer of the building. Exiting to the right, the frigid wind pelted her cheeks with icy rain. It was sleeting again. She stopped at a corner deli to get a coffee for her walk home. Her mind raced. She needed money and Marie had been convincing, but the girls there sure didn’t look like they were doing very well. She sipped her coffee as she walked as fast as possible along the slick sidewalks. Finally, she saw her street. The light shining from her brownstone entry had never looked more welcoming.

Opening up the door to her apartment, she smiled and looked around. She didn’t have much, but it was cozy and homey. She felt grateful as she flopped down on her second hand sofa. Her tabby cat, Pierre, came over and purred against her leg. She noticed the blinking light on the answering machine, and picked up her home phone to listen to the messages. One from her mother, the usual Sunday check in, and one from her boyfriend Nick. She smiled as she listened to his message. He said he wanted to come over later, and he would love to treat her to a relaxing massage.

 

Calzones

Rene had just turned 18, and was living on her own in Boston sharing a grimy one bedroom apartment with a mentally unstable roommate, but that’s another story altogether. It was the early 80’s, and although some people might have been benefiting from Reaganomics, Rene and her friends were definitely on the other end of the spectrum. They scraped by to pay a meager rent in the roach infested one-bedroom apartment. Not having much job experience, Rene set out to find herself a restaurant position. Maybe she could work as a waitress or hostess. Even a dishwasher. At this point, anything would do.

Someone recommended she try the North End, where there were plenty of small Italian cafes and restaurants. So, she decided to go check it out on foot. Walking through the quaint neighborhood, she saw a handwritten sign in the window of a small place called Café Pompeii. There were a couple of guys sitting at a small metal table in front, smoking and drinking espresso. They gave her the once over, and she looked down at the ground while walking in. She was very shy and awkward at 18, and extremely self-conscious. She forced herself to stick to the plan. Inside, the place was classic Italian, from the red and white checkered tablecloths, to the counter case with its shelves full of fresh pastries. The cafe also offered some of the best gelato in Boston. She quietly asked the girl at the register if she could apply for a job. The girl told her to have a seat, and she could get her an interview immediately for the waitress position.

Rene felt her heart beat faster, as she flushed with nervousness. Of course she would wait for the interview. She was excited and scared, since she had never actually waited a table in her life. But, she needed a job, and how hard could it be anyway?

A large masculine looking woman sauntered over. She introduced herself in a husky voice. Elena was the house manager. She asked Rene some brief questions about her experience. She seemed to understand that this was to be her first time waitressing, and told her she could have a day of training. She said that the job was pretty simple, and she was sure that Rene would catch on quickly, since she seemed to be such a smart girl. Not like the last girl, who was, according to Elena, a total dimwit.

Elena showed her the menu, and explained the system, pointing up the ceiling where there was a table number correlating with each table on the dining floor. Rene must have had a worried look on her face, because Elena quickly emphasized that after a while, the numbers would become second nature,  but until that time, you just needed to look up to make sure you had the right order. Rene was hired to start immediately.

The next day she got up extra early, put on her makeup, along with the requested black pants and top. She hopped on her bike and rode across town, taking side streets to avoid traffic, all the way to the North End. She locked her bike in front of the café, so that she could keep an eye on it. It was her only means of transportation, and she was fearful of ever losing it. Looking up, she noticed storm clouds rolling in. In her excitement about actually making some money, she had forgotten to check the weather report.

As she entered the café, the place was buzzing. There were already customers at tables, most of them men. Loud conversations overlapped. Mostly in Italian. Elena motioned her to hurry up and put her backpack behind the counter, since they were already backed up. As Elena briskly pushed by Rene, she told her go take an order from table #6. Panicking for a moment, she looked up to the ceiling to find the number #6 table location. She looked down to find a table shared by two older Italian men. They gave her the eye and smiled as she walked over. Caio bella, che carina. They chit chatted, but she had no clue what they were saying. They seemed to be ordering, but she still didn’t understand. They asked for “doo caltz” and she had no idea what this meant. Just as they were starting to get annoyed, Elena intercepted with a quick offering of fresh bread, and grabbed the order form to scribble down 2 calzones. Rene tried to breathe and just focus. Elena barked at her to get to table #3. She had to look up again to the ceiling, and as she searched for table #3, Elena yelled at her to follow-up with table #6, then go give bread to table #9. Rene started getting flustered. She felt dizzy from looking up and down. The place was loud and customers were glaring at her. Mostly men, with the occasional younger woman. One of the men started calling her stupid in Italian “stupida”…this she could understand. She felt the tears welling up in her eyes. No, no she didn’t want to cry! Her face turned red as she walked over to the counter to compose herself.

She sniffed, and looked up to see a tall dark-haired, handsome man standing behind the counter reaching for her hand. He told her he wanted to talk to her and she needed to follow him. His name was Arturo. He was the owner’s son. As she walked with him, he told her he knew that the first day would be hard, it always was. He led her by the hand through the small café, past the mural of Naples on the wall, to the far left side, where just below the painting of Mount Vesuvius, was a door. He opened the door, waited for her to go in front of him, then slammed it shut and locked it. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. She looked around a dark large room painted black. There were two pool tables where a few young men were arguing over whose turn it was. The air was laden with smoke and smelled musty. There was music playing from a juke box in the corner, and a few guys sat around on leather sofas deep in conversation. She couldn’t understand a word, since it was all in Italian. Arturo led her through this room. As they walked through, 2 large dobermanns ran around them once, pausing momentarily to sniff her leg, and continuing their rounds. Arturo opened another door, this time he entered first. She looked inside to see a large 1960s painting of a naked woman on the wall. The woman had a huge blonde bouffant hair-do and was barely covered with a fur wrap. She forced a come hither stare under baby blue lids, along with her parted hot pink lips.

As her eyes shifted down from the painting, she saw an older man with thick grey hair and a mustache, easily over 70, seated at a large elaborately carved wooden desk. He smiled at her and told them to come in. He dismissed Arturo with a hand gesture, and Rene felt a twinge of fear come over her, as she was left alone with this stranger. His name was Joe. He told her to come over to sit by him. She obliged. He pulled her close to him on a chair and put his arm around her in a fatherly way. He proceeded to tell her that if she wanted to stay here, she would want for nothing. If she ever had a problem, he would take care of it. If she needed any money, all she had to do was ask. He offered her full protection. She was really not sure how this all happened so fast, since she had been such an epic failure as a waitress. But, he seemed sincere and very convincing that she was worth it to him.

She got quiet, and really didn’t know what to say. She was young 18. Naive. Maybe another girl would have jumped at this opportunity, but Rene felt uncomfortable with it. He told her to think about it and let him know. She said ok. He pressed a 100 dollar bill into her hand and closed her fingers around it. He then picked up his phone and called Arturo, who reappeared to take her back to the restaurant. By this time, it was getting late. She continued to try to wait tables, and actually began to get the hang of it. The kitchen staff began to leave, since the place was closing now. Elena told her she just needed to help reset the tables for the next day. As she set up the last table, she realized that everyone had left, and she was suddenly all alone in the dining area. She could hear the rain coming down and she looked out to see her bike being pelted with raindrops. The street looked black and slick.

Music was still playing. It was classic Italian romantic music, which she hadn’t really noticed until after the crowd had died down. The soft mandolin and vocals were a relief to her ears. Her mind drifted as she laid down the last utensils and straightened the tablecloths.

Finally, it was time to go. She took her backpack from behind the front counter, and set it on a chair. Pulling out a rumpled jacket, she put it on. As she brushed her long hair into a ponytail, she heard the back door opening. A man cleared his throat and she looked up to see Joe heading in her direction. Tesora? Where you go?  Why was she leaving him, he wanted to know. She told him she needed to ride her bike home, and it was getting late. He was carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses. He told her he wanted her to stay and have a toast with him. She started to feel trapped. No, she said, she had to go. He insisted and came closer to her. He touched her arm and told her he needed her to stay. She reached for the door, and looked out into the rainstorm. He asked her why she was going to leave him. He just wanted to spend time together. Something propelled her to rush out the door to her bike. He stood in the doorway, watching her fumble with her bike lock. The rain was torrential, and within minutes, she was drenched. Wiping the water from her face, she pulled up the hood of her jacket, awkwardly glanced at Joe, then hopped onto the bike and rode away in the downpour into the dark streets of Boston.

Occasionally,  Rene looks back at that moment as a missed opportunity, but ultimately, she knows in her heart that she probably dodged a bullet.

 

Dirty Mattress

Christmas 2015. Another holiday season in full swing. This year I found myself alone in LA on a shoestring budget. A recent catastrophic breakup had left me in a bad way, both emotionally & financially. Operating on autopilot, I felt I had hit an all time low. A last minute call to cater a private party on Christmas Day came in, and of course I had to accept the job. At least I would leave with cash in pocket, and what better distraction is there than to busy yourself with work.

Driving up the curving streets, into the hills above Hollywood, the homes got bigger and the streets narrowed. Finally in front of the location, I glanced up to see the multi-tiered home looming precariously above. Heading up the steps to the door, I adjusted my black ruffled shirt and smoothed my hair back. After what seemed like an eternity, I stood before the massive entrance. Taking a deep breath, I rang the bell. I had arrived 30 minutes early as requested, and the host answered the door promptly. He was an older gentleman, wearing a tuxedo, and an expression of disdain. He swiftly ushered me in, and pointed to the closet where I was to put my personal belongings. A bearded man passed by covering his mouth to muffle a nasty cough. I turned my head to avoid contamination. “Oh, that’s my son George, he has a terrific flu.” I just feigned a weak smile. I followed him down the hallway towards the heart of the residence, adjusting my apron along the way.

He turned and barked at me in a stressed staccato tone, “Where is the other server? I need to go over the menu. Are you the lead?” Actually, I had never catered a private party before, so I just told him that I was to meet the lead server, and that as soon as he got there, we could go over the menu together. He opened a swinging door into the brightly lit, steamy kitchen. This room needed a serious remodel. The drop ceilings with fluorescent panels, and cabinets were definitely circa 1986. It was painted a color that I recall being all the rage during the Reagan years. The smell of cooking overwhelmed me, and I saw a large blonde woman stirring a pot of rice on the stove at the center island. She had wild curly hair, and her crimson flushed face glistened with beads of perspiration. He introduced me to his daughter, and informed me that she had been a professional chef and would be preparing the food for the party. She rudely interrupted him to let me know that she had made a drastic career change over the past two years, and was now a renowned psychic to the stars. She was a medium and could channel spirits. Interesting.

Next, I met Anna. Apparently, Anna had been the housekeeper for 35 years, and it showed. This lady looked ancient as she stood over the sink, washing dishes. Naively, I offered her the rubber gloves I had brought along, but she just laughed and told me in broken English, that she couldn’t work with gloved hands. Her expression spoke volumes. For a fleeting moment I had the urge to whisk her away so she could relax, but then again, I wasn’t that far behind in the current scheme of things.

Finally, at 5, the doorbell rang and it was the other server. The host brought him into the kitchen, where I stood pretending to study the menu. I quickly placed the menu on the counter, and readjusted the ruffles on my apron once more. I had dressed as nice as possible within the confines of the catering uniform, because it was the holiday after all. My outfit was as flattering as possible, and my makeup and hair was perfect. At least the fake diamond earrings coupled with the ruffled apron made me feel a little more “french maid”, rather than just a “server”.

He quickly introduced himself with a proper accent, “Shawn”, and turned right away to the host. “Sir, let’s go over the menu if you are ready sir.” Something didn’t correlate to me, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint anything. Shawn wore the standard white button down shirt, tie and black pants of a caterer. I noticed the shirt seemed just slightly dingy around the edges. As we reviewed the menu with the host, he nodded and threw in a “yes, sir, okay sir, how would you like the items plated, sir?” “first or last, sir…etc…” It all seemed a bit over the top, but I figured maybe this was to be expected. Again, this was all new to me, so I just went along with it. The dinner was a sit down, French style service. We were to bring in the dishes in order, and above all, remain discreet. The table had been set already, and at each place sat a tiny box wrapped in tiffany blue and tied with a silver bow. First thing would be champagne, while the 10 guests opened their gift. It was, apparently, a Tiffany silver spoon. We were advised to promptly remove the wrappings, after the guests were done with the ceremony. Following this, we would need to keep on time with the dish removal, and setting up for each next course. We were also expected to keep the wine flowing throughout the entire evening.

As we stood in the kitchen waiting to begin the service, the host went out to the bar area to round us his guests. Shawn, Anna and I waited in awkward silence. Finally, they were all corralled into the dining room, which was through a swinging door from the kitchen. Shawn looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Merry Fucking Christmas” he said, with a heavy Boston accent. I laughed. Gone was the proper waiter with the “yes sir, okay sir.” He swiftly turned on his heel and walked away, disappearing out the back exit. He returned a few minutes later, smelling of cigarette smoke. He asked me if I had worked for this company before, and I let him know it was really my first time doing private catering. He told me not to worry, I simply had to follow his lead. I felt a slight sense of relief.

As we stood there, he looked at me for a moment and started to tell me the story of his recent break up. I shared that I had gone through the same thing around the same time. We laughed and sort of bonded over that fact. Then he told me that the reason he was late was that his motorcycle had been stolen, and he had taxied over. In addition, he wasn’t able to get to the bank to get cash to pay me at the end of the shift. The lead caterer was responsible to handle the payout. How convenient, I thought to myself. Of course, I offered to take him to the bank on the way out, because I would be damned if I didn’t get my money after all of this!

The host came into the kitchen, and silently motioned to us that it was time to pick up the wrapping paper and begin the service. So it went. We moved in and out of the kitchen, passing plates, picking up, pouring wine, giving Anna more dirty dishes and so on. The host’s son with the violent cold kept coughing and covering his face with a cloth napkin. I tried my best to avoid his plates, and let Shawn deal with it. Getting sick was not what I had signed up for.

Anyhow, the night went by smoothly and the host was very pleased. At the end of the affair, he met with us in the kitchen to give Shawn a check and to tip us for our labors. I assumed, since it was Christmas, and since the host was raving about our service, well, I assumed we would be generously tipped. The guests each got a Tiffany spoon. Well, we each got an envelope with 60 dollars. Merry Christmas indeed.

Finally, we were dismissed, and Shawn and I walked out the front door into the night air onto the landing. From the top of the stairs we paused for a few moments to look out at the view. Under a clear starry sky, the sparkling lights of Los Angeles extended for miles below. As we walked down the steps together, I felt a strong kinship between us. At the bottom of the stairs I pointed across to my car. Shawn wanted to smoke a cigarette, so we walked around the corner, and up the side street as he got his nicotine fix. It was dark and we both laughed about the night. We commiserated about the shitty tip, and he asked me what I was going to do the rest of the night. I told him I would probably go home and drink wine. He said he was going to do the same thing, so if I wanted to I was welcome to go over to his place and we could hang out. He said he was still so upset about his ex, and he didn’t intend anything other than hanging out. I said okay, and we headed back to my car. Driving across town, we stopped at the bank so he could get my payout. Then we headed over towards his place. He told me it was a huge apartment and in a great location. We stopped at a 7-11 on the way. Christmas night, 7-11, Venice Beach. Need I say more? A few homeless people lingered in the lot as we pulled up. I expected it to be empty, but the place was buzzing with action. The store was full of random characters, including us. We were still in our catering garb, although mine was now disheveled, and the hair was out from the bun. I hadn’t touched up my makeup, so it was likely smeared around the eyes, and there was a high probability of a lingering outline around my lips. Shawn perked up, saying hello to everyone, and shouting out ”Merry Christmas!” He grabbed a case of beer and some chips. I picked out a bottle of wine. I told him I wanted to get us Christmas gifts, and bought a few lotto tickets and some scratchers, along with the wine. It was that kind of a night.

Back in my car, we headed further west. He guided me towards a large modern, but somewhat desolate looking building, and I drove down a ramp into the lower level of a vast parking lot. We took an elevator up and walked down a maze like hallway. At this point, I was so tired I just followed along, looking forward to a glass of wine. As he unlocked the door, I had a moment of trepidation, because now I realized, I was basically with a perfect stranger. A false sense of familiarity had been established, via our catering bond. In reality, I had no idea who this man was. And, now I was entering into his apartment. “What an idiot. I watch Forensic Files”, I thought to myself.

He switched on the lights, and immediately, I noticed a giant bare mattress to the right of the door. He saw me looking at it, and quickly told me that his neighbor had died, and he inherited some of her items, including the mattress. I didn’t really know what to say. There was a brand new surf board leaning on the wall wrapped in a giant red bow. He pointed to it, telling me it was a Christmas gift for his girlfriend. He still planned to give it to her. There was a photo of a female silhouette over the fireplace, as well as a few photos of the same girl sprinkled around the room. Otherwise, the place was a kind of messy, average one-bedroom apartment. He told me to check the rest of it out and I followed him through the small hallway. He switched on a light, and I looked into the bedroom to see a pile of camofluage clothes, and a military backpack in a heap on the floor. On the bed laid a rifle. He said “I was just cleaning my rifle earlier, gotta put it away.” Then he explained to me that he was an Army Veteran. He started rambling on about how he was on disability, and that is how he was able to afford this apartment in the luxury highrise. Back in the living room, he switched on the tv , and shuffled into the kitchenette to open the wine. I heard him tear open a bag of chips and pour them into a bowl. As soon as I sat down on the sofa, a scruffy cat came over and jumped up onto my lap. Shawn laid out a spread of tortilla chips, beer and wine, along with some dubious looking premade salsa. He then grabbed a giant bong, lit it, and proceeded to get stoned. I sipped on my wine, declining the bong hits. He flipped channels incessantly. Finally landing on the burning log channel, which featured holiday songs with the lyrics superimposed. At that point I was getting tipsy and we started to sing Christmas songs. This continued for what seemed like hours. Soon I was drunk, and I needed to lie down. He got up, bong in hand, and told me I could sleep on the mattress, pointing to it, as he walked towards his room, and shut the door. I placed my coat down and kept my clothes on, lying on the mattress. Sleeping with one eye open, I tried to get some rest. I did doze off, and woke to a breeze blowing through the open sliding door. The smell of stale smoke permeated the room. A cat was sitting on my chest. I sat up and Shawn stumbled out of his room. He offered me some instant coffee. I sat in the dead woman’s bed, and sipped on the bitter brew. He was acting odd, and started putting on different shirts and telling me how he got them from someone who left him a bag of clothes. He paraded around in various “looks”. Suddenly, I felt the urgency to leave, and told him I needed to be somewhere. As we walked down the matrix towards an elevator, he told me he was happy I came over and that if I hadn’t, he might have really lost it. I said the same went for me. I got in my car, and exited the parking garage into the bright morning light. Looking into the rear view mirror, I half expected to see a different person. But all I saw were my smudgy eyes, looking somewhat bleary and sad. My coat was covered in cat hair, and I could smell the smoke that had infiltrated my hair and clothing. I got home, threw all of the clothes into the laundry basket, and took a long hot shower.

Lying down on my bed, a text came in. I looked at the phone. It said “Merry Fucking Christmas”. I responded in kind.

 

Little Genie

Paris, 1921. After midnight. An icy bone chilling rain fell relentlessly. Her soaked satin dress clung to her skin as she ran as fast as she could. Tearing around a corner, down a dark slippery alley, her heel got caught in a cobblestone twisting her ankle. She had taken the turn too fast. Sliding down to the ground against the dank wall, she cried out. Tears blended with the rainwater streaming down her face. She could hear them getting closer. She pressed her hand against the drenched stone, and tried to leverage herself up, but it was no use. She was too weak now. There was more shouting as they got closer. She looked up at the strip of sky above the alley, as the rain came straight downward. She closed her eyes tight. They were near now. Suddenly, a dark shadow came over her, and she felt the grip on her shoulder. Looking up, there stood a man and a woman. They were soaked as well, but they were protected with coats, hats, and boots. The woman commanded her to get up. She begged the couple not to kill her. She told them she would do anything they wished for.

The woman leaned down and shook her shoulders violently. Looking into her eyes, she told her in a harsh voice that there was only one way she could be freed. Then she reached down into a satchel, retrieving a stone. Just an ordinary looking small rough stone. Holding it into the girls face, she told her that if she could turn the stone into a precious gem, then, and only then would she be freed.

The girl held out her muddy hand, and watched as the stone was placed in her palm. She closed her hand around the stone and shut her eyes. The man and woman stood over her ominously. She squeezed the stone and released it. It was still a stone. Then she placed the stone between her thumb and forefinger and pressed it. She was pressing so hard that her entire being seemed to be focused on the stone. Suddenly, her face relaxed and she opened her eyes. She released her fingers, and a perfectly faceted diamond appeared. It glowed in the dark night. The couple gasped, and the woman grabbed the diamond out of the girls hand. She held it up, looking at it against the night sky above. The rain began to taper off. The woman smiled at the man as she placed the diamond in her satchel. She told the girl that she was free to go, and they turned to walk away.

It was by now, the cusp of dawn. The rain had tapered to a fine mist. The girl shivered on the ground. She took a deep breath and managed to pull herself up this time. She headed down the other end of the alley to where a small light had just gone on. As she got closer, she saw that it was the back exit of a bakery. A man appeared at the door and saw her tragic figure. He offered her to come in and warm herself. She entered the kitchen, savoring the warmth and inhaling the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked bread. He motioned her to have a seat on a large burlap sack of flour. The man brought her coffee and a large fresh roll, which she immediately tore apart and devoured. He brought her another one before he left the kitchen to go into the bakery. As she sipped her coffee, she smiled. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small glittering ruby and placed it on the empty plate.