By Thomas Maluck
Inspired by “Last Chance Night Club at Camp Patrick Henry”
“How Wallflowers Wilt”
You remember the taste of martinis
ordered as a round.
You remember cold feet
that stumbled rather than go numb.
You remember the center of the dance floor calling
instead of the center of your bed.
You remember forgetting your umbrella
and crossing the street anyway.
You remember going in circles that never stopped
until they did.
You remember an unsent letter
and the heart it still holds.
You remember dance steps
and where they could have led,
the glance of a lifetime
and words left unsaid.
“The Dark Side” by Elizabeth Ballou
Inspired by “Norfolk’s White Way”
The Dark Side
“And you’re saying all I have to do is sign my name here?” the woman asked, her voice on the edge between want and fear. “You’ll send me the money?”
“In four payments,” Henry said, smoothing his necktie. He noticed that her skirt was unraveling at the edges. Pimples ran down the length of her chin like a chain of hills. The moment when he started picking up on these details was his least favorite part of the deal. “We’ll schedule an appointment for you with our physicist. Within the week, I’d say.”
“You swear it won’t hurt? I won’t feel…”
“No, no, never,” he cut her off. “You may feel occasionally lethargic the first few months as your body accustoms itself.” He doubted she knew what ‘lethargic’ meant.
She blinked. “All right.”
The eidolon beside him, a shadowy figure in a bowler hat and sport coat, handed her a pen. The woman took it gingerly, as if it were a clawed animal. Henry’s eyes skimmed to the end of the contract with hers.
By his/her signature, the client does hereby permit Mann & Co. to perform, with single-electrode vacuum tubes, the separation of his/her body from his/her eidolon; and that said eidolon becomes the property of Mann & Co., in exchange for $1,500, for one calendar year and a day.
“Wonderful,” he said when she was done. “Absolutely wonderful.”
* * *
Helen Mann had been Frank Mann’s typist before she was his wife. She still moved in quick, sure motions in the office, making Henry feel clumsy and slow. Her neck was white and stem-like, and she painted her lips and nails the same deep pink.
“Five sales today,” she said as her hands spasmed over the typewriter, nodding in approval. “Someone’s been busy.”
Henry glanced at her tiny waist. He suspected she still wore a corset, though they had gone out of fashion ten years ago. “That makes – what? A hundred and fifty eidola?”
“A hundred and fifty-four,” she corrected. One of the hundred and fifty-four was melting around the cracked-open door right now, like a winter wind. It unfolded itself into a shape like a small girl’s, picked up Helen’s empty teacup with hands like smoke, and hurried away.
“Sometimes I wonder if Tesla ever thought of all this happening,” Henry said. Tesla’s accidental discovery in 1904 of the eidolon, a shadowy double that could be split from a person with the proper application of vacuum tubes and electrical current, had seeded new religions and provided new business opportunities. Eleven years later, swarms of eidola swept houses and sold papers. The ones who had lost theirs said it didn’t hurt, that you hardly felt it after a while. And yet Henry could always tell who had given theirs up, although he wouldn’t have been able to say what gave it away.
“Of course he didn’t,” said Helen, eyes glittering. “That’s our job.”
“Whose job?” boomed Frank from the stairwell. Henry smelled the musk of his cologne before he saw him. Frank flicked his tongue between his teeth, like a cobra, when he saw Henry. “Shouldn’t you be gone by six?”
“Now, Frank,” Helen said.
“I’ll go. Kate’s waiting.” Henry tugged on his coat.
As he closed the door to the offices of Mann & Co., he could hear the rumblings of eidola all around him, like the machinations of some unseen clock.
* * *
He found Kate curled on the front room couch of their apartment on Brambleton St. like a cat, her frayed stockings peeping out from under her skirt. “Look at this,” she said, riffling the pages of the Sears Modern Home catalog in her hands. “The Hamilton starts at a grand. It has three bedrooms. A music room.”
“And we’d still have to construct it ourselves, once we ordered the materials.” He began removing the pins from her thick, red hair, moving his hands through it, burying himself in its perfumed smell.
“The Chelsea’s a bit cheaper.”
She unknotted his necktie. “How was work?”
“I made five sales.”
Kate fixed him with the dark, liquid eyes that had first caught him from across a Norfolk dance hall two years ago. “And you get – what? Three dollars for each?”
“It’s enough,” he said, restless.
“Not enough for the Hamilton.” Kate crossed to the small liquor cabinet and mixed him a gin fizz without asking. “I’ve been thinking…” Henry took a sip, waiting. She squared her shoulders. “What if I sold it?”
“Don’t be dense, Henry.” She fiddled with her hair. “We could use fifteen hundred. Maybe get out of apartments for good.” The Brambleton apartment had three rooms, worn floorboards, thin walls. Every day he could feel Kate, with her dancer’s feet and half-formed dreams, straining at its edges.
“I’m doing better. Moving up. They’ll pay me more-”
“Not with Helen in charge of the books.”
He downed his drink. Kate got up to make him another. “God, Kate, no. Do you understand? I’ve seen people stand still for hours. Forgetting what they were doing. They lose something.”
“That’s a rumor.”
“They’re going to use them in the war.”
Kate’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
“I overheard Helen and Frank. He’s gotten offers to send eidola over to Europe. They’d wash uniforms, clean rifles.”
“For which side?”
“I don’t know that much.” He touched her hand. “A year and a day is a long time to be without something we don’t understand yet.”
Kate squeezed his fingers. “Why don’t I get you supper?”
“It’s almost ten o’clock,” he said, distracted, but let her sit him down at their little table. As he glanced out the window, he could hear the soft, familiar sounds of her in the kitchen. Below them, drifting down the street, were eidola made translucent in puddles of streetlight. They looked like pencil drawings, he thought, where someone had rubbed out the lines with water.
He drew a hand across his face, wondering how many of them he had caused to be made.
By Elizabeth Morelli
Inspired by “St. Elmo Billiards”
The Lamps are different, but the Light is the same.-Rumi
After Delilah climbed out of the kitchen window, what remained with Rose and Mama were her ruptured words. The residue from an overflowing pot left to be scraped clean with lye. Neither inhaled; neither spoke. Closing the window was an act of practicality.
Hours later, buoyed by two neighbors, a limp and oblivious Delilah was brought home to lie on the sofa while Mama bathed her sooty face—except her eyes, forced shut. The neighbors said “firecrackers” and left the story out. The hospital was more specific chastising Mama for letting her fifteen year old befriend ruffians with poor intentions and matches. In life, Delilah defied all limits of distance, pulling close to the enemy, pushing away family—lighting a firecracker within inches of her unstained face.
“Probable blindness,” the doctors declared. “One eye may have some tunnel vision. Someday.”
Mama and Rose cried and attempted the mend. Mama sent a 14 word telegram to Papa whose ship was guarding the country’s eastern perimeters against The European War forces. Rose tried to read Anne of Green Gables to Delilah who buried her head when Rose read the first sentences. Tossing the book aside, Rose wrapped herself in the front room’s heavy green draperies to peer out at the small restaurants across the street on ground level and St. Elmo’s Billiards upstairs, opposite their second floor flat. Bright lights, lively people outside their home; dark rooms, sadness inside. At age ten, Rose understood the sharp contrast.
Papa had chosen the flat in Norfolk because of its proximity to St. Elmo’s. After dinner on Fridays, he would say to Mama, “One beer and one game,” kiss his daughters and slip across the street to emerge from the buffet with a glass and climb the interior stairs to the pool room. On those evenings, they would watch him glide from cluster to cluster of uniformed sailors while they waved frantically until he acknowledged them with a nod. Then they’d stand quietly listening to the clean echo of the wooden balls. When dusk fell the multiple lights of the building would come on in segments—first the interior lights of St. Elmo’s glowed, followed by the outside left, the top marquee and then the right as if the beginning of an evening’s theater. If a thunderstorm blew in, Rose would watch the reflections of the “fire” in the puddles on the cobblestone street and believe she was at a street carnival.
Whenever Papa shipped out, St. Elmo’s became a vibrant portrait of him that his daughters would stare at for hours hoping he would reappear. The previous year Delilah had tried to sneak into St. El’s claiming that Papa had left a pocket watch there. “Tarred and feathered,” she responded with a smile when Rose asked her what had happened.
* * *
Now an almost somber Delilah, eyes shielded by dark glasses, feet wiggling slightly, sits across the front room listening to the radio that Mama keeps on most of the time. Rose has unwound herself from the drapes and watches her older sister’s feet. “What was it like?” she spills out suddenly, too loudly, while chewing on a braid.
“Rose, you don’t ask Delilah those. questions,” Mama rebukes.
“Hell,” Delilah says. “A night in hell, Rose, but the beginning was good.”
“Stop it, “
“No, Mama. I need to say it. It was so beautiful at first. So many fireworks and rockets all going off at once lighting the alleyway with a million bursts of flash and noise. I felt so alive, so happy. Then I grabbed a string and lit one after another, maybe not quickly enough, because the crackers started to go off, and I remember the excitement…and my friends saying, “Drop them, drop them.” Bright flickers right in front of me, almost part of me.”
Rose breathes just once. “What happened?”
“You know the story. My eyes got burnt.” Delilah’s voice deepens, and she pulls the quilt back over her head.
“But the lights?”
“They went out, Rose. Do you understand? There will never be any more lights.” Sounds resembling a dog yelping reverberate from beneath the quilt. Moving gently toward the sofa, Mama reaches out to pat the top of the clumped material. Rose twirls back into the flowing drapes preferring the cushiness of velvet to Delilah’s sounds.
Across from the darkened apartment with Rose poised at the front window, six men lift their beers for a toast before they take cues in hand— drinking to their ship, their camaraderie, St. Elmo’s and the new summer night, a pink and gold medley forming the backdrop for the electric lights of the street businesses. The sailors’ voices blend as if a musical ensemble punctuated with a cacophony of hoots and hollers.
With a powerful thrust, Rose lifts the front window and tugs back the drapes, turns to the Delilah lump and says in a hoarse, but large voice, “I’ll watch the lights, Delilah; you listen to the words, because I can’t do both.”
People’s Choice Award
By Pixie E. Curry
Inspired by “America”
It was the last place I expected to see her. I’ve searched for her for years–a decade really–and there, as if only ten minutes had passed, she was.
She still had that sharp fragile beauty that I desired and she hated. Soft wavy hair that easily curled up at the first hint of humidity, the bane of her existence, the way she used to tell it. I resented her slenderness and found myself pulling in my stomach and straightening my back to make my breasts stand up higher. Smooth skin that seems to shine from within. I was still envious of her beauty but proud of it, too
I knew her choice of her makeshift American flag halter top was an assertion of sorts. “Still the rebel,” I thought to myself. Past arguments came to mind, some that had us not speaking to each other for days, but in the end always negotiating a truce after realizing we were on the same side, just expressing ourselves differently.
I watched as she took a long draw from her cigarette, followed by a hacking cough. Her face took on a grimace with each cough but she still took another drag. She turned and rubbed the lit end of the cigarette against the brick wall to put it out. She must have done that a lot that night; there was a large stain on the wall. She let the dead cigarette drop from her fingers where it joined a litter of butts on the sidewalk. Hers? She coughed again.
“How long are you going to just stand there and stare? I see you.” She hadn’t turned her head to look at me but she knew it was me.
“I was waiting to see if you were going to light up another coffin nail before I said anything. Where have your ass been, girl? I have been looking for you for years. Didn’t your momma tell you?”
“I haven’t been home for a while so, no, I didn’t know. Come here, girl. I see you still have that uppity attitude.” She flashed that smile; that bright, impish smile that said ‘I’m just joking, I’m not mad at you.’
“I see you still have that ‘go screw yourself’ attitude.” We hugged and swayed there on her butt-littered sidewalk.
“So, what have you been doing besides holding up this wall?” I crossed in front of her to check out the window display. Headlights from the cars turning from the stop sign across the street made momentary abstract patterns on the windowpane. When the lights disappeared, the cheap t-shirts and dresses resumed their dullness.
“I work here part time. It puts a little change in my pocket. Still writing and singing. I work the clubs up and down the Strip. Virginia Beach has a lot of clubs so I do alright. What about you; you look like you’re doing alright.”
“Still trying to figure it out. I finished college at last but still trying to find where I belong. It’s getting cold standing on this corner. Let’s get something eat. Where’s a good place?”
“I’m good.” She puts on a jacket that she had wrapped over her handbag. Could it be the same handbag?
“Isn’t that the same bag I gave you for your birthday? What, fourteen years ago? Dang, girl, you are a hoarder but it still looks good.”
That smile again. “It’s been my home and a reminder of home for me.”
A police car glides up to where we are standing and slows to a stop. The passenger side window rolls down and the officer driving leans over to talk through the now fully opened window.
“Hey, Lady. You’re singing tonight? ”
She goes to the car and leans into the open window, “In a couple of hours…Desperado’s at 11, the second set at 1. You’re coming?”
“Yeah, I’ll bring the crew. You’re ok?”
“Yeah, this is my family. Check you later. Bring money!”
“You got it, Lady. Keep warm.”
He drives the car back into the now thickening traffic.
She’s ok. She has people that are watching over her. She is loved.
“Look, what were you doing before I came up on you, I mean, am I taking you from anything? Do you have time to talk or at least let me know how I can get in touch with you? I found you and I am not losing you again.”
“Naw, I have some time. I just like to chill and watch people ride up and down the street. Plus, my fan base comes by and gives me a holler. Most of the time, my gigs are advertised by word of mouth. I can bring in my own crowd so it’s a plus to some of these clubs that hire me; a fabulous singer and a large crowd with some bennies to spend. I get a lot of last minute calls so I put out the word as soon as I know I have a gig. It’s a win/win situation.”
We start walking down the street. Everybody knows her. “Hey, Baby. Those pipes in tune?” “Sweet Mommy, when you gonna’ cut that album?” She smiles, high-fives, blows kisses. Love showers her like the glow that falls from the streetlights, the neon signs that highlight her face and hair–pink, red, green, yellow.
She reaches into her handbag, her ‘home,’ for another cigarette and stops in her tracks, searching deeply until she finds her lighter. With a flick she has her flame and then an inhale, the orange glow. She uses the lit cigarette to point out our destination; a diner whose sign states they serve breakfast 24/7.
“Let’s go in here. I could stand some coffee.”
“Ok with me.”
“Hey, little girl. Coffee coming. You on tonight?”
“Desperado’s at 11, second set at 1.”
The smiles, the hugs, the well wishes; all for her.
She wasn’t lost at all. Not her.