“A Quality of Silence” by David M. Rubin

Slumped on a ratty couch three feet from the fifty-five-inch screen, Kovlov sighed along with Ryu. His cell buzzed and he hit green to Elaine’s midflight yelling that he had better Venmo $1200 as she had to pay her rent. Kovlov grunted, tapped the red icon, and refocused on the movie where an elderly woman, a middle-aged man, a young woman, and two young children sat on individual tatami mats around a low wooden table. The elderly woman scooped rice slowly into bowls. The doorbell rang. Kovlov’s roommate Sal popped from the kitchen, crossed between him and the screen. He opened the door to a man in a suit who queried, “Eugene Kovlov?” and dropped a sizable envelope on the floor. “Consider yourself served.” The family held their bowls, gently shoveling at their portions. A teapot marked the foreground.

Sal closed the door and kicked the envelope toward the couch. “Kovlov, you’re wastin’ away. Maybe eat some Ramen or something.”

When the movie ended, he clicked off the TV, headed into his room and flopped onto the futon.

Moonlight guided a SEPTA train as it emerged from underground and clanked up onto the elevated tracks that ran alongside Route 95 above Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington row homes, soot blonde brick schools, and entropy riddled factories.

“Wakey up!”

One-eye took in the clock which was mostly hidden behind tipping piles of Japanese cinema books. Why the hell was Sal waking him up? A red neon 1. Maybe 1:00 PM? Could be 10, 11 or 12? Or maybe any hour at all and the one a minute’s digit. He’d hold still within the warm comforter, thwarting any consideration of least bad choices that would hurl him into the world. He might wait until the 1 changed to a 2, which meant waiting on average 30 seconds to 30 minutes, but his concentration broke and he slipped back into oblivion.

“Kovlov! Wake up and listen good. You owe me $1400.”

Thoughts of the Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith lucked out when a nuclear war eradicated his tormentors, leaving him to pile up books to be savored for years to come. Unfortunately, the show’s karma boomerang smashed its character’s glasses. Immediately after their daughter died, Elaine had kicked Kovlov out, claimed their friends and most of both families. Then Sarge Clatchy got hit by an Uber so goodbye to man’s best friend and even small talk with other dogwalkers. Painful silence chased each negation. Maybe his unique path would one day make sense.

“You missed the bus. What now… if you have no job?”

Morning Philly stretched tall buildings. Steel and glass reached high into the air, long ago surpassing bronze William Penn atop city hall. An endless cacophony of wires, cords and crossed poles and beams blocked the view of those scurrying to work and bothering to search for sky or gazing up at Penn sculpted to look like he was holding his pecker, forever relieving himself upon the city.

Loudmouth Sal was right about losing his job in The Gap’s inventory room, and then a lightning storm of black and white images fired about his mind. He bolted from beneath the covers.

At Khyber Pass, Kovlov pointed up at the rows of glass bottles. The bartender pulled a Knob Creek but he kept his finger pointed at the soft yellow label of the Yamazaki 12 long enough for the bartender to correctly triangulate. He guzzled his shot and pointed again. Guzzled and pointed again. Guzzled. He slapped $100 on to the walnut bar, leaving nothing. In the Giant supermarket parking lot, he Incredible Hulked a shopping cart over the metal divider poles and pushed it back to the apartment.

“Kovlov, why the fuck did you steal a shopping cart?”

He loaded up the cart with hundreds of books that he had accumulated over the past four years during his Purgatorio; piles of screenplays, essay compilations on cinema and television.

The Schuylkill River ran heavy along the snake of Route 76 with its green metal white letter signs and dyslexic web of on and off ramps. The landscaping, recently terraformed for joggers, strollers and to connect a Balkans of neighborhoods, followed quietly along past the enormous Greek columned art museum and lit up boat house row.

One wheel of the cart spun about its axis gaining no traction on the sidewalk as the piles overflowed, causing him to stop and pick up the fallen. The Book Trader on Second and Market offered $120 for the fraction of books they might re-sell. He pushed the remainder to a makeshift thrift store squatting in an abandoned building on Front Street, and, despite the sign to not leave donations outside, he piled the remaining books under an awning. His phone rang as if Elaine was going to chide him to read the fucking directions and add that only a moron doesn’t read the labels on food at the supermarket. He powered it off and stomped it to bits.

On his way back to the apartment he stopped in the Kyoto Grill, walked past the tatami rooms to the bathroom. There was no alarm system. Adjacent to the kitchen a back-alley door with a bolt and doorknob locks.

His bedroom window looked out on the bricks of the adjacent building and down three flights to the dumpsters. He ripped from the walls the paintings by art school friends who wrote him off long ago. He garbage bagged them with his trilobite fossils, superhero and wrestling action figures, and tossed the bags, book shelves and futon frame out the window.

“You’re a fuckin’ massive psycho! But at least you’re showing some initiative. Dude, to kill yourself you’re going to need a higher window. If you jump from here, you will just break your ankles unless you land on your head. You know that, right?”

When the room was empty except for a knee-high table and a green futon, he slipped into the stairwell and hid up one flight, waiting for the superintendent to race up the stairs in response to calls complaining about some lazy fucker throwing trash out the window. Jansen passed, and Kovlov slipped down to the basement and into the unguarded office. He grabbed a box cutter, a Silky Zubat stainless steel handsaw, a wrench, and a box of garbage bags, and headed back out with the shopping cart.

He pushed along Chestnut, back on Walnut, and then back on Locust, stopping at garbage pails to pull soda cans and beer bottles. When he filled two bags, he sat on a stoop till the restaurants were cleaned and locked up. He headed east along Locust and then south on 2nd to the alley behind the Kyoto Grill.

It had been one of those Philadelphia days that pivoted through every season. Morning crowds crisscrossed lush parks and colorfully packed parking lots, Bruegel-like Phillies caps dotted the spring tapestry red. By noon a summerish sun flexed, forcing off coats and jackets. By early evening a brief fall drizzle until temperatures steadily dropped into the low 30s. Backlit by a full midnight moon, the massive cloud banks covered the city wintry gray.

Box cutter and credit card slid open the deadbolt. He clasped the wrench onto the doorknob stem and jumped his weight to crack it open. Once inside he passed a shelf with a stacked fleet of all-you-can-eat wooden sushi boats. To avoid being seen through the front plate glass by late night strollers he hunched-over headed for the backmost tatami room. He gathered and piled four earthy igusa mats and dislodged two bamboo posts and beige paper screens of Zashiki Hakkei prints and calligraphy. The hand saw and box cutter gently sliced the screens into sections. On his way out he grabbed a red teapot. The collection was gently placed into the cart and covered with the bags of empty cans and bottle. Within a block of his house, Kovlov pushed the cart and bags into an alley and grabbed the teapot, mats, and posts and screens to be re-assembled.

That night after a warm bath, Kovlov walked back to his bedroom and opened the door. Ozu waved a bamboo stick to enter. The stick settled back perpendicular to a pencil-thin mustache, creating a cross. To the master’s right, bespectacled Noda cooly palmed a lit cigarette. The red teapot was set in front of his tatami placed among a family scattered about a low table. Ozu looked at the one empty tatami, a sign for him to sit. Chishu Ryu sighed. Up close Ryu glowed a monk or maybe an angel. Setsuko Hara, wistful, understated, angled grace despite carrying a far too heavy burden, welcomed him with a modest glance. Atsuta calculated the presence of Kovlov and re-squared the shot. Kovlov had no lines but what matter in this simple space, to abide in nourishing silence.

David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in biology. His stories, poems, and essays appear in After Dinner Conversations, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Café Irreal, ffraid, Last Stanza, Maudlin House, Moss Piglet, The Nabokovian, and The Smart Set. Links and connections to be found @Six18sFoundry.

“The Rocks Beneath the Same River” by David M. Rubin

Steven Rothstein perseverated four sub-stories, base code for his translation.


Dad handed Stevie, 8, and his brother Mark, 5, two one-dollar bills, enough for the Sunday New York Times and either two packs of baseball cards with cardboard flat sticks of bubblegum or two comic books. They would walk an unimaginably long distance along West 5th Street past three high rise apartment buildings and turn left into the strip mall. They would pass six stores, walk in the Village Stationary, browse the comic book carousel for new Captain America, Invincible Iron Man, and Mighty Thor comics. They would pick up a perfectly arranged Sunday Times from among the many stacks on the floor, carefully check for the presence of each section from Arts & Leisure to Travel. They would go to the counter, if they had chosen no comic books grab two packs of waxy baseball card packs, and pay. They would walk back home without dilly-dallying. Intimidating but doable. They would then be free to watch Bugs Bunny and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Everything went according to plan. Long walk. Check for new comics. None. Pick up and inventory a paper. Grab baseball cards. Pay. Walk home. They made it back to West Brighton Avenue, where a monstrous clanking rollercoaster D-train crossed above, and Stevie shifted his grasp on the paper that must have weighed as much as Mark. The massive construct called a New York Sunday Times slipped free and pages from every section caught the unforgiving ocean wind and fluttered into the street and parking lot. He remembered glancing at happy-go-lucky Mark mid bubble, carefully gripping baseball cards in each hand; it would be hard to blame him for this fiasco.

Stevie sort of remembered crying on the elevator ride up to the apartment, a smack in the head, another smack for good measure, and being called a moron who can’t even do one little simple fucking thing like get a paper. He definitely remembered having to spit out his bubble gum and throw the baseball cards down the incinerator shoot, though he hid in his underpants waistband the rare Lerrin Lagrow that completed his 1975 Topps set. He was given money to get a new paper and bring back the fucking change.


“Get over here.”

Stevie, 13, held out the subway pass that moments earlier Sheryl Kahn flashed to get through the gate. She had walked up the two flights of stairs, past the F to the D platform, and tossed the pass out over the back fence. Stevie picked it up from the dirt, walked innocently into the station, and flashed it to the woman in the booth. He did not see the cop like a hunting lion hidden off to the side.

“Hey, you think I’m stupid?”

Stevie thought, “Why oh why did Sheryl make such a catastrophic mistake acquiescing to this idiotic pass scam and why didn’t she notice the cop and abort the mission.” He never saw a cop this close up and was shocked by how young he was. It felt like being in Alan Conseletorre’s apartment when his older brothers were deciding on wailing dead-legs or force-feeding hot sauce till someone puked; where he figured out when no move was possible, winning meant simply not crying. His mind jumped ahead to a cascading checkmate. Sheryl would not have the decency to claim her pass was lost and would tell the school and both sets of parents on him… blah blah blah Stevie cajoled me each miserable morning in the elevator and on our schlep to the station, ranting on and on that it was a crime for him to have to pay if we can both use my pass… which meant suspension and that his and Sheryl’s father were both going to kill him. Stevie slid the pass into his pocket and shuddered.

“Wooooo, stunatz, give me the pass!” Stevie sheepishly handed it over. “Says here your name is Sheryl. You some kinda femminuccia?”


“What’s your religion?”


The cop ripped Sheryl’s pass into bits and flipped it in the trashcan. “Get out of my station and don’t come back… walk to school from now on.”


Steven, 15, and friends Chuck and Jeff entered Dougherty’s Liquor on Kings Highway and X as it supposedly didn’t proof. They beelined for the carousel of pre-mixed drinks in plastic bottles, spun it a few times, and decided the smart move was to buy six screwdrivers as mixing different types of alcohol was said to make people puke.

At Dekalb, Steven puked between D train cars, and wobbled back to a seat. “How many screwdrivers are left cause mine is on the tracks?”

Chuck answered, “You guzzled both of yours so you’re all done, rummy.”

Jeff shook his head. “Puking by 4:40 and Cheap Trick goes on at 9. Way to pace your first concert.”

For Steven everything blacked out between Trick and the cops beating his arms and legs in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra pit while he reached down for a souvenir. When he awoke the next morning, feeling like he was hit by a D train, he pulled from his pocket a Cheap Trick Cheap Trick Cheap Trick guitar pick.


“Hello, Sir. Hello.” Steven, 17, pleaded with a guy who was nodding out while trying to pull a copy of “Return of the Native.” The guy’s arms were scabbed over tracks and he hadn’t showered in forever, stinking up a radius from Classics to Poetry to Self-Help that would stay customer free till closing. The shame of the stink attached to Steven. The guy, who was a little older than Steven, leaned away from the shelf and stopped after having pulled the Hardy out a quarter of an inch. Then like a drunken metronome, he nodded forward, pushing the book back in place. This went on for several excruciating minutes.

Alone on the floor, Steven tried to figure out the right move for someone making $2.85 an hour. It was definitely not enough compensation to touch the guy’s elbow to gently lead him out of the store and risk being sliced across the face with a box cutter like what happened to Marjorie. If Steven told Mezner who was getting high in the back office to call the Port Authority cops, she would tell him to let her know if an actual crime was committed. If he just watched the guy fall through the shelves he would risk being fired, and no way he was losing a hall pass to getting let out after third period to take the N to NYC.

The guy groaned and nodded forward with a crash, dominoing Classics into Poetry. Books flew about. Most customers kept right on browsing, some made for the exit, some still holding whatever they were browsing. The guy had soiled himself, releasing a sickly junkie odor that Steven even decades later couldn’t clear from his nostrils.

At that moment Mr. Bendakis, the bookstore’s owner, entered the store and asked Steven where everyone was. He shrugged like an imbecile, and watched Bendakis open the back-office door to Mezner desperately spraying Lysol into billows of pot smoke. Bendakis fired everyone except Steven, who had fortunately taken his bong hits first and was back out on the floor.

Forty years of stories accreted like water torture, blasting a mild hunched posture and modest grimace. He recalled these four stories over and again and thought of flies and spiders. Spider webs designed by something far worse than a spider. He understood his stories on such a deep level that if ever asked he would say, “You know what I mean. You know. You know. You know what I mean?”

David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in biology. His stories, poems, and essays appear in After Dinner Conversations, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Café Irreal, ffraid, Last Stanza, Maudlin House, Moss Piglet, The Nabokovian, and The Smart Set. Links and connections to be found @Six18sFoundry.

“The Spectator Takes a Journey” by David M. Rubin

Looking back what seemed a stray puppy was actually an old little dog and coordinator of an incident that was still raw like the scrapes on his elbows and knees. He had no idea what to make of the even earlier incident with the crows but sensed all was connected.

Archer Fennis woke up that morning, reciting his mantra of “no humming”. Humming was a signal to his nervous system that there was something to be worried about, maybe everything. Then sweating. Then cold hands. Then pacing. Then anticipatory moaning. Then the full-fledged Munch-like scream. No humming, no humming, no humming.

The white living room walls were devoid of paintings or posters. The emptiness was unendurable, a continual incitement for Archer to Jackson Pollack his carefully curated red ceramic bowl of granola, almonds, blueberries, and soy milk against the wall. He had no coffee table and wondered what if one wanted to display art books, but had only one folding-table placed constitutively in front of the TV. He placed the cereal bowl gently on the blonde wood and consciously struck a pose of one intent on terraforming.

Archer laced up his Merrills, grabbed a baseball cap (orange with a Jayavarman II face), black pandemic mask, and a credit card. He would buy eight art books. Eight. He would keep them on a stack on the floor next to the folding table and each Sunday he would ritually rotate up a new one.

He raced out to the wooded path behind the always empty back porches of the huge houses and meandered down the steep hill and skirted past the New Hope Police Station. He hit Main Street where it crossed over the creek, turned left, and then ducked into the Galleria Mall, using the bottom of his shirt to grab the door handle and swing open the enormous glass and steel door. The woman from Sky Roast slid across the counter a medium-sized cold brew and a chocolate biscotti, which she assured him if tried them enough times he would come to understand why they were so popular.

Before the steps leading up to the Delaware River overlook behind the re-modeled Ghost Light Inn, Archer stopped alongside Martine’s River House where a murder of crows convened over a plastic bag filled with fresh rolls. Two birds swooped down and began tearing at the plastic while eight sat on the railing, some cawing their support, others keeping watch. Surprisingly to Archer and all of the birds the plastic held. He wondered why the crows were gingerly taking turns with their beaks vs adding a foot for leverage or just tug-of-warring open the bag. He raised his hand like a druid to calm the situation, tip-toing over with the intention of freeing the rolls. He would make sure all the crows got some, maybe pocket a half for himself as he had already written off the biscotti. But the murder flew off at full caw when Martine’s back door opened and a women emerged, “why are you feeding the birds our bread?”

“Crows. I’m not. I just got here. Now that I see you have boxes from the bakery, I know what must have happened. An adventurous crow pulled free a bag of rolls.”

The woman scrunched a “yeah sure” face.

“You should keep the deliveries in a safer place,” and added a joke, “or place a scarecrow.”

“We gonna play shudda? You shudda put the bag back in the box.”

“Many tourists feed ducks here, so at first, I figured someone left a bag of bread for the next family. I was just going to help the crows open the bag. They are very smart and sensitive.”

“Are you serious? They are boutique rolls from Factory Girl Bake Shop.”

“What would you have had me do? Place the crow-pecked rolls back in the box?”

“Yes! Then we wouldn’t wrongly blame the bakery if we were a bag short.”

Archer didn’t touch a single roll yet felt guilty like he was Longinus brutalizing Jesus on the cross. Archer bowed an apology, “I meant well.”

The roll fiasco would be relived and reimagined in thousands of future perseverations. In the here and now he failed to notice the two black and two turkey vultures, watching from across the way on the fence around the garbage bins of The Salt House. The Salt House, Martine’s River House, Logan’s Inn, Stellas. So many micro-environments carefully crafted for couples, whole societies that didn’t register Archer’s solo existence. Dazed as he never expected to have to speak to anyone from that world, let alone be chastised out on their streets, Archer jettisoned the plan to relax with his coffee by the river. He flipped the biscotti into a garbage, and with a vestigial shudder like the shake of a dog, he reset and headed off towards South Main Street and his main reason for having left home.

Farley’s Bookshop had one whole shelf plus a dedicated spinner of Taschen hardcover art books; impressive yet only a fraction of the multiple series, each with dozens of individual artist monographs and genre summations. Archer, a completist, loved collecting whole series, though that was massively cost prohibitive in this case. If there were 40 then buying 20% of them would meet his arbitrary target of eight. He didn’t like to argue with subconscious processes honed over decades, which if it said eight must have had solid reasons, but perhaps pegging to a percentage made more sense. He took three deep breaths and carefully counted 23 on the shelf and 48 in the spinner and thus 71 in total. Jesus, 20% of 71 would commit him to buying 14 books, which at $20 each, that would be $280, with a combined weight of perhaps fifteen pounds. So be it, he would buy 14; that would allow for about a monthly switch of the featured book on the folding table.

The next even higher hurdle was selecting the set of 14, a filtering with no defined parameters, based on what he preferred at that given moment. Better would be portfolio mathematics and a clear strategy to avoid fooling oneself based on trivial factors like an attractive cover or a Madeleine-like childhood association like his parents having a Berthe Morisot print and his mother copying Monets, or the random recommendation of another bookstore browser, and then he would load up too heavily on one genre or another and could wind up with 14 books of impressionists that all bleed together. Though even that was uncertain as even Morisot and Monet were worlds apart.

He thought about postponing the project to chart a safer and saner course, as they say in chess; he could click a photo and analyze it in the comfort of his bed with a notebook and colored pencils to chart it all out, maybe make an Excel spreadsheet. He took a very deep breath and decided to step outside the Bookshop to call in a dinner order from Jaffar. “Hello, Archer Fennis to place an order for take-out… Papdi chat but with no onion. Mutter paneer but please add more peas… I’ll pay extra… It’s better when not soupy and that will keep our karma solid… … well yes the karma and the dish… Yes, the number of paneer cubes is always perfect… One shrimp tandoori, one bhindi masala, one daal, two garlic naans, raita… Yes, and mixed pickles. They call it achar in Bangladesh too, right?” Like selecting art books, the food order was fraught with peril but here Archer had a few set patterns that usually worked well. Today’s order was working out perfectly, though maybe too much so as quantum physics suggested anything too certain was not possible and thus he started back in. “Something feels wrong. Maybe substitute channa masala for shrimp tandoori… No, no keep both and add an aloo gobi as will be more for the week… Yes, fine… Yes, I suppose… Please have it ready in exactly 75 minutes.” In 75 minutes, he would arrive at Jaffar holding fourteen gorgeous hardcover art books in a stack. No bags. A small parade for the citizens of New Hope to gape in awe at a traveling tower of art books.

He popped back inside Farley’s, said hello to the manager and a student working the cash register, who was some sort of genius as she claimed to have read Germinal in one sitting. He would spend exactly 30 minutes considering the Taschen collection, but likely needed only 20 as the task was almost a third complete as El Greco, Bosch, Klimt, Rothko, and Schiele were definites. Three expressionists were a lot to be sure, but the gap between them was as vast as El Greco’s heaven to Bosch’s hell. He might soothe the wild passions and nubile nipples on the cover of the Klimt book with linearity and abstract shape, maybe Johns or Mondrian. Mathematical and patterned. Pourquoi pas blatantly add the historical musings of an Ingres or David, maybe a Gericault. He fantasized about regaling guests with tales of the “Raft of the Medusa”.

A glance at his phone showed 4:23, so there were 32 minutes before the food was ready and he needed eight to walk to Jaffron. Book check out was five minutes max, leaving 19 minutes to pick out the remaining books. He lost track of the detailed plan and engaged the first of several jazz-like improvisations. He would browse biography for seven minutes and essays for another seven and then head back to choose the final Taschen books, which he now decided would definitely include Mondrian and O’Keefe, as she was absolutely unique, and maybe Malevich. Of all the genres he knew the least about futurism and vaguely remembered that Malevich was a Pole working mostly out of Ukraine and then maybe Italy. He looked but found no Berthe Morisot or Fantin-Latour, a minor tragedy.

Fourteen minutes later he was back at the art section holding four books, Mark Lanegan’s Read Backwards and Weep, Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One, and two different versions of the Tao Te Ching. He added them to the waiting pile of El Greco, Bosch, Klimt, Rothko, and Schiele. He then very deliberately pulled from the carousel and added Mondrian, O’Keefe and Malevich, and then added six seemingly at random from the shelf. Had Archer stuck to a structured plan he would have not later have gotten distracted walking while trying to discern a pattern in the books he actually bought, and he would have been more cognizant of the stairs, the ball and the dog.

Archer checked out uneventfully though $394 seemed well more than he had planned to spend. He got the club points added to his account, stepped outside and removed his mask. He was ahead of schedule so paused to clear his mind on the grey stone bridge crossing over Aquetong Creek. He would collect his thoughts before heading four blocks to the light turn, left and head the two blocks to Jaffron.

What the bejeezus just happened? It seemed six Taschens were added in a Monet blur. He vaguely remembered seeing Velazquez and Vermeer, and he was sure Escher and Rothko made the cut, but did he make an event-nullifying mistake and add Renoir? How could he rush and ruin this? The event was fraught with uncertainty as to what happened and what ifs and should haves. No way the Imp of the Perverse added Renoir not even as a joke. He stopped and placed the pile on the stone ledge below which the creek ran to the river, heavy from last night’s rain. Klimt, Rothko, El Greco, Bosch, Schiele, Mondrian, O’Keefe, Malevich, Velazquez, Vermeer, Kahlo, Escher, Ingres, David. Fourteen. Oh yeah, then he had grabbed these two surveys, one on Cubism and one on something called The Blaue Reiter. What kind of joke was that? He gently pulled the Blaue Reiter book free from the bottom, playing a very dangerous game of Jenga. Dear Lord, something involving Kandinsky and a Blue Rider emerging from a Kuntstlervereingung.

Eight had been added in a blur! Now there were 16 total. $394 did seem expensive, but he was not one to add up a receipt under the public gaze. Before he crossed back over the bridge to Jaffron he re-sorted the books alphabetically so there would be a semblance of order till he could conceptualize something more meaningful. The Blaue Reiter, Bosch, Cubism, David, El Greco, Escher, Ingres, Kahlo, Klimt, Malevich, Mondrian, O’Keefe, Rothko, Schiele, Velazquez, Vermeer. He had two extra now and wondered what was missed. Hard to fathom a set of art books for a coffee table without an impressionist. His right hip hurt as did his left heel. He took a series of deep breaths. Got books. Get food. Get home. Get home. When one is safe at home there is always time to think.

The door opened into a dark warm space. A physical bell attached to the door alerted Jaffar’s owner to an arriving guest. Door closed. Credit card. Waited. Pleasantries and blessings all around for everyone surviving the pandemic. Signature. Grabbed two bags. Door closed. Bell dopplered into background.

Archer would take the easier climb home on the hill at the end of the creek. He turned left, head down the stairs to walk along the tow path by the creek. The tower of art books topped with four other books was impossibly balanced. His palm supported it like a pizza delivery man; one of the Jaffar bags, attached to that wrist, swung underneath. His other hand, with a much heavier allocation of food, was held away to balance out his center of gravity.

A tennis ball rested on the steps. It was certainly at rest. When he started his descent, the ball began to roll. Maybe it was attached to a string; he couldn’t be sure. The ball accelerated, bouncing down the steps towards the brackish creek. A small white puppy ran from out of the bushes on his right and snatched the ball. Archer stutter-stepped to avoid the puppy and stumbled down the steps. He landed on his knees and grabbed the edge of the tow path to prevent his plummet over the edge and into the creek. The tower of books paused in mid-air like in a cartoon and then fell four feet into the water with a complex splash. From under the bridge four or five assorted shaped and sized dogs lead by the small white one grabbed the two sacks of food and raced north up the tow path and scrambled into a break in the bramble. The crows above raced after the dogs.

Empty-handed Archer walked home slowly. He was close to home and could hum without fear. He thought of Fritz Wunderlich, plugged in his ear buds and played Das Lied von der Erde. The vultures high in the overcast tracked him back to the apartment. They may as well have been singing Wunderlich’s part. “Seht dort hinab! Im Mondschein auf den Gräbern. Hockt eine wild-gespenstische Gestalt; Ein Aff ist’s! Hört ihr, wie sein Heulen.”

Archer raised his fist without looking up, “Indeed I crouch like an ape, but you will not hear me shriek.”

David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in biology. His stories, poems, and essays appear in After Dinner Conversations, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Café Irreal, ffraid, Last Stanza, Maudlin House, Moss Piglet, The Nabokovian, and The Smart Set. Links and connections to be found @Six18sFoundry.

“A New York State of Mind” by Jill Veader

Last summer, my boyfriend, Ian, and I visited his grandmother, Elaine, who’d been living in the same apartment on Amsterdam Avenue for forty years. Elaine let us stay in her spare bedroom, from which we spied down at the sun-soaked street from eight stories up, surrounded by her bookshelves full of coffee table books and old photos. A trip to New York City was perfect because neither Ian nor I had much money; we both still worked at the grocery store where we’d first met.  

The morning after we arrived on Amtrak, Elaine took us around the neighborhood on the Upper West Side. We got bagels and coffee at Zabar’s, met cats at bookstores, and made it as far as Roosevelt Island; we must’ve walked twenty miles that day. It was hot for June, and even in cutoff shorts and a t-shirt, I was sweating profusely—nevermind Ian, who’d opted for black jeans. Elaine, though, remained cool and dry, ready to move on while we sat on park benches, panting, and saying, “We just need a minute,” or “maybe some water.”

As we traversed block to block, Elaine stopped us every ten feet or so to tell us to look up. Squinting in the sunlight, we’d gaze past her pointed finger to be met with the stoic, Medusa-like stares of cherubs carved into limestone, or ornate seals of olive branches and shields painted onto brick above a stoop. Gilded terracotta blue and gold glinted in the sun but was almost hidden behind the trees lining the sidewalk. How many cherubs had watched over the same people for years, like Elaine; how many gazed at passersby, at couples just married with a good job and a baby on the way? They all had one thing in common; they reflected the sunlight on their faces like shining mirrors, watching you, guarding you, daring you to stare back at them. How many people had looked back into the eyes of those cherubs before me?

People on cellphones huffed and walked around us in hurry as we stood along the curb with our mouths half-open. I couldn’t blame them; I knew it wasn’t good to stop on the sidewalk, especially in a big city.

“Don’t ever look up like a tourist,” my dad told me before I left for college in Boston, “because it invites people to mug you.”

I never dared inconvenience anybody with my pace in Boston, let alone block the sidewalk while I stared up at the eaves of apartment buildings. Elaine, though, remained unaffected. She walked slowly but confidently, stopping whenever and wherever she pleased. She was eighty then; her New York was a composite, a series of remembered photographs spanning four decades on the same block, unchanged except for the influx of even more people into the city.


Our trip together to New York City was my first-time meeting Elaine. Nothing could have prepared me for her quirky, albeit charming nature; she was extremely generous; she brought us to the best brunch spots and encouraged me to try the mimosa flight, even though I was still digesting last night’s gin and tonics. Our first brunch together as a group, Elaine began to shine on us her true, radiant colors. Elaine’s complaints were memorable; either the soup was too hot or the ice cream too cold, or—and this happened more than once—the music was too loud. This was ironic, considering that her preference for dining “al fresco” meant sitting on the sidewalk as cars rushed by as you tried to have another bite of hummus. Her complaints were more than just the peculiar idiosyncrasies of an old New Yorker—they were personal, a vendetta chiseled into Plymouth Rock against any and all busboys who dared to cross her path or bring her entrée at the wrong time.

I had no right to question her attention to detail though; her apartment alone was a work of art. She’d been married to an art dealer, and so—just as some invest in the stock market or collect silver coins—her collateral was displayed in gold frames, ornate in their stillness and silence, beautiful paintings of women, streets, landscapes, fruit; her life’s investments were cramped so tightly together that they practically reflected upon one another—you couldn’t turn your head without being met with a splash of color or a stroke of beauty. At night, we played cards—hearts—and drank Tanqueray gin; she drank dark rum and ginger beer. At some point one night, we decided to watch Grease on a small couch in the guest room. As we sat together, I put my head on Ian’s shoulder and tapped my finger on his arm to Olivia Newton-John singing “The One That I Want.”

I don’t think I could ever get used to New York City, but that trip did change me. Back in Boston, I now watch busy people and smile as they stream through the sidewalk like lost fish, buried in the lives of their emails or messages or news feeds. When I’m walking on a peculiarly hot day and I look up to wipe my brow, I find a face to greet me in the terracotta; I think of Elaine, the beauty she found, and I stand for a moment longer than I used to.

Jill Veader is a recent graduate of Emmanuel College in Boston where she studied writing and philosophy. When she is not writing, she is working at a wine shop north of Boston. She has work upcoming in the Evening Street Review and hopes to continue exploring the boundaries of poetry and prose in her work.  

“Empire State to World Trade” by Natasha Cobb

In South Carolina, Ester spent years wondering what big cities were like – Visiting her cousin Tessa in New York City, Ester initially found that they could be overwhelming with smells of fuel and perfume mixed with the sounds of cars honking and people speaking quickly as they searched for their loved ones. 

As Ester waited for Tessa at Kennedy Airport, she thought of how lucky Tessa was to be able to make it in N.Y.C. Ester looked forward to the week ahead because Tessa had promised her that she’d show her the best parts of the city. From the moment Ester placed her suitcase in the trunk of Tessa’s car, her cousin did not disappoint her. Tessa took Ester right into the heart of the city. They boarded a train at one of the main transportation hubs in the city, Atlantic Terminal, and then caught the three train to thirty-fourth street. 

Tessa gave Ester a crash course in train etiquette before they got on the train. 

“Don’t stare at anyone. Don’t talk to anyone, even if they say something to you. And if you accidently touch anyone in anyway apologize immediately, even if it is not your fault.” 

Tessa knew that Ester would stick out as a tourist – It was March, but Ester had brought her winter coat, hat, and gloves. N.Y.C in March was too chilly for Ester, who was used to sixty as a low temperature in South Carolina at that time of year. Also, Ester would stop without warning, take out her camera. and take pictures of the most ordinary things like buildings and streets that didn’t stand out to Tessa at all.

Tessa knew Ester would want to take a lot of pictures where they were going. Standing in line outside to get into the Empire State Building and looking up, Ester noticed that the top of the building disappeared into the clouds.  But from the top of the building looking down, the view was clear but impossible to fully take in. Tessa had hoped there would be a restaurant at the top of the building, so they could eat while keeping their bird’s eye view of the city.  

Tessa walked around the circle, pointing out landmarks when she could find them among the concrete clusters. After asking a stranger to take a picture of them together under the Empire State Building sign, they headed back down to the street to catch an Uber to The World Trade Center, which did have a restaurant at the top of the building.

Since Ester had never used Uber, she asked Tessa if she could put the app on her phone.  Tessa knew that Ester would never use it in South Carolina, with her two cars, but she humored her cousin and added the app on her phone like she asked. 

After arriving, they headed up to the restaurant at the top of the building. The elevator ride up to the restaurant was eventful and a voiceover automatically chronicled the history of the World Trade Center as the elevator moved. The World Trade Center was impressively strong and beautiful.

They arrived early for their reservation, so they took time to take in the landscape and beauty of the city again.  From different angles at the top of The World Trade Center, they could see the city’s bridges as well as the Statue of Liberty. Ester zoomed in with her camera and took pictures of everything as if she were close enough to touch them. They sat on a bench beside one of the windows. Overwhelmed by the wonderous sights around her, Ester let out a deep exhale.

“Your mom would have liked this,” Tessa said, thinking of her aunt and how she hadn’t had a chance to see her before she died. It seemed right that the city brought Ester and Tessa back together. Their life experiences could be added to the city landscape within those buildings, already filled with the hopes and losses of others. 

“I’m glad you came,” Tessa said. 

She then looked at her phone and realized it was time for them to claim their table.  They made their way to the restaurant and sat in a booth right next to a floor to ceiling window, and the way the booth was positioned they could both see the magnificent view. They ordered a bottle of wine to go with their burgers and fries because neither of them had ever had wine with burger and fries before. They had angus beef, double cheeseburgers with bacon, lettuce, tomato, a pickle, and shoestring fries with gourmet ketchup, and the red wine they ordered blended perfectly with the meal.

With a slight buzz they made their way to the train station to catch the four train back to Atlantic Terminal. Given the effect of the wine, Ester did end up making eye contact with strangers and accidentally brushing up against others, but she did remember to apologize. When they reached Tessa’s apartment without incident, Ester began to think that maybe Tessa worried too much.

Back at the apartment, Tessa slept on her couch, and Ester slept in the only bedroom. Ester checked in on Tessa, who’d fallen asleep. Ester went into the bedroom to watch When Harry Met Sally to see which of the same places she’d visited that day as the characters in the movie. 

Ester’s visit helped her see the city in a new way, and her curiosity about the city continued to grow. To Ester, New York City was a big and daunting but friendly city. She found that it was just the place to go when she longed to be anywhere except South Carolina where she’d spent all her life with her mom, who’d then died a little over a year ago. 

Natasha Cobb is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Queens University of Charlotte.  She is also a playwright who has had several plays go up in multiple festivals throughout New York City.  Her most recent production, Foreign Born; New Home, will premiere at the New York Theater Festival this summer.  Natasha also has a podcast, Black Bipolar Female, which is a fictionalized account of her experiences living with Type I Bipolar Disorder.

“Brooklyn Royalty” by Steve Slavin


As someone born and bred in the borough, I am well acquainted with Brooklyn royalty. In fact, only great modesty prevents me from even mentioning my own royal blood.

Brooklyn, of course, was once part of the British Empire, and many reminders can still be found. I grew up just a block from our neighborhood’s main shopping strip, Kings Highway. Just off the Highway is a well preserved pre-Revolutionary farmhouse, the Wycoff-Bennett mansion. In recent decades, it was owned by Annette and Stu Mont, who sometimes called their home the Wycoff-Bennett-Mont house.

Annette and I met at James Madison High School and became friendly again about twenty years ago. She invited me to monthly political meetings and occasional parties at her home. She and her husband had restored the house to look much as it did during colonial times. There were even numerous oil portraits of the home’s earlier residents, as well as furniture and farm implements dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

When new guests arrived, Annette graciously showed them around.  Sometimes I could not resist telling the more gullible among them that I too had descended from the Wycoffs or the Bennetts – or even both families.  Annette smiled when she overheard me, but she never bothered setting the record straight.

Another structure surviving from colonial times was a store on Montague Street, in historic Brooklyn Heights. If you looked in a Brooklyn phone book from the 1970s, you’d find a listing for King George Pizza. It’s still whispered that after their victory in the Battle of Brooklyn, scores of Redcoats stopped in for a celebratory slice, while Washington’s army escaped to New Jersey to fight another day.


Three members of the royal family lived in the neighborhood where I grew up. Two of them held court in Kelly Park – and I mean that both figuratively and literally.

When we were in elementary school, our classes lined up in the schoolyard each morning before entering the building. But in the event of rain or snow, we lined up in the cafeteria. One spring morning there was a tremendous downpour, with heavy showers predicted for the rest of the day.

A scholarly-looking kid named Marty Marks made his way around the cafeteria assuring us that the sun would come out that afternoon, and he would see us all in Kelly Park. And sure enough, he was as good as his word. And though there were still some puddles, the park was filled with kids playing stickball. Smiling benevolently, Marty made his rounds, accepting thanks and congratulations. He had accomplished the impossible! And so, to this day, Marty Marks is known as the King of Kelly Park.

I was also blessed to be acquainted with the Duchess, perhaps the best handball player that Kelly Park had ever known. We were both about sixteen at the time, and though I was very attracted to her, I never was able to get up the courage to ask her for a date.

One day, she had a bandage across the bridge of her nose. Some of the other kids asked her if she had walked into a wall. But she just smiled, and they were left to wonder what the big secret was.

It must have been a year or so later when I asked the Duchess about the bandage. She laughed. It turned out that some of the girls in our neighborhood had had expensive nose jobs and she was jealous.

“But why would you have a nose job? You have a beautiful nose!”

“Why thank you, Steve!”

“So, what was with the bandage?”

“I wore it so everyone would think I had had a nose job.”

“But why, if you didn’t need one?”

“I wanted everyone to think my parents could afford to pay for one.” I guess if you’re a duchess, you do need to keep up appearances.


Besides the Duchess and the King of Kelly Park, there was the Countess. A very thin, pale woman in her fifties, she lived directly above my friend, Arnie, on Homecrest Avenue, just a few blocks from Kelly Park. He told me that he would often hear her pacing the floor all night.

I guess that she was known as the Countess because of her haughty, aristocratic manner and her refusal to associate with anyone too far below her station. Her neighbors believed she was married to a European count that would one day be joining her. His castle would surely be several steps up from her furnished apartment.

And then one evening, the phone rang in Arnie’s family’s apartment. It was the Countess. She was almost breathless with excitement. She had time to utter just two sentences, “Abe is here! I made him some soup.”

Royalty is part of every Brooklynite’s DNA.  One of the stars on the Brooklyn Dodgers was their centerfielder, Duke Snider. He was known throughout the borough as “The Duke of Flatbush.”

There was a rather absurdly titled popular song back in the 1950s, “The Duke of Earl.” Huh? There are dukes and there are earls. But wasn’t calling yourself the Duke of Earl a bit excessive? Why not go for something a little more refined like Countess, or Duchess, or perhaps even King?


Let the record show that until now, I have held off talking about my own royal connections. But I do prefer, at least on formal occasions, to be addressed as Steve Slavin, OBE. If you’re a Britisher, you would certainly be familiar with this title. It stands for Order of the British Empire. It was granted to me when I was just thirty years old, when I was spending a summer in Barbados.

There are tens of thousands of Bajans who have migrated from the island to Brooklyn, but I had done the reverse. Actually, I was there to research my doctoral dissertation, entitled, “The Economic Cost and Effectiveness of the Barbados Family Planning Association.”

It was while doing that research that the OBE was bestowed upon me. I had gotten to rub shoulders with many of the movers and shakers of the island, some of whom were benefactors of the BFPA. Among them was the Honorable Clyde Gollup–who held three important government positions simultaneously–and appeared to know nearly everyone. As we drove around Bridgetown, the capital, he waved at hundreds of different people, and they waved back.

“Clyde, is there anyone you don’t know?”

“Well Steve, surely you noticed we have a very small country.”

During my stay, I was introduced to Lady Adams, Sir Frank Knight, and dozens of other luminaries. While they were all quite gracious, I felt that my status as an impoverished graduate student put me at quite a social disadvantage.

Once I’d received my doctorate, of course, I’d have a recognizable title. But what could I use in the meanwhile? It didn’t take long for me to come up with Order of the British Empire, an honor that the Queen had been handing out quite generously. So from that day on, I introduced myself as Steve Slavin, OBE.

Did my ruse actually work? Well, it was pretty hard to tell, because everyone was so polite. If some had their doubts, they kept them to themselves. But then one day, the manager of the Barbados Family Planning Association referred to himself as “a Britisher.”

“Lionel,” I pointed out. “You’re a Bajan, not a Britisher.”

“Oh, is that true?” he replied. “And since when does the Queen grant OBEs to people from Brooklyn?”


Despite having rubbed elbows with Brooklyn royalty for so many years, I had never even heard of the Queen of Brooklyn. Then, one evening, I actually met her.

I didn’t realize straight off that she was a queen because we met at a Halloween party. She happened to be dressed like a queen, so I had no way of knowing that she was one.

How can you spot a queen? And what’s the difference between a queen and a mere princess? Their years of experience ruling their subjects? Maybe it’s that old noblesse oblige, if you get my drift.

Whatever it was, this lady had it! She simply expected everyone to wait on her. Indeed, she was, by far, the laziest person I had ever met. I mean, yeah, there were energetic queens like Elizabeth I and Victoria, but then there was Queen Sheila – Queen of Brooklyn.

Pushing fifty, Sheila confided that she never worked a day in her life. She got by, it seems, on a monthly “stipend” she received from her father, whom of course, she detested.

“You do take his money,” I pointed out.

“Trust me, Steve, it’s guilt money. The man has never done a thing for me in my entire life.” I was too polite to say anything about the “stipend.”

We never actually dated, but just had a few casual get-togethers. One of those times was having dinner at my friend Barbara’s house. After dinner, when Barbara was doing the dishes, Sheila offered to help. As theatrically as possible, I fell to the floor.

They both smiled as I lay there, doing my best to maintain an expression of great shock.

Then Barbara thanked Sheila for asking, but said she was almost finished. I told Sheila that I was truly amazed by her generous – and highly uncharacteristic offer.

“Well, I knew Barbara would say ‘no.’”

Another time, Sheila asked me to escort her to a wedding in Brighton Beach where a Russian woman she knew was getting married. She was looking forward to stealing the spotlight, as that certainly was her queenly due.

She wanted me to drive her to the wedding. No problem. But she also wanted me to wear a suit. I didn’t own one. So I would have to miss the wedding – and she would need to find someone else to drive her there–and, of course, to play a supporting role when she made her grand entrance.

As things turned out, Sheila almost missed the wedding. She had made a blind date with someone she had met through a computer dating service. He was supposed to pick her up in front of her building, but he never showed up. So Queen Sheila had to call a cab and be further humiliated by having to make her grand entrance without an escort. Luckily, by the time she arrived, few of the guests were sober enough to take note of this embarrassing detail.

A few weeks later Sheila again needed me to give her a ride. She was having a medical emergency. Would I please drive her to the hospital?

“Of course,” I replied, “but wouldn’t it be better to call the EMS, since they’re trained for these occasions, and you might need medical attention on the way to the hospital?”

“No, Steve. I need you to take me. You’re the only one I trust.”

When I got to her apartment, I needed to half-support and half-carry her to my car.

“Which hospital should I take you to? The two closest are Community Hospital and Kings Highway Hospital.”

“Either one is fine.”

“OK, we’ll go to Community because their emergency entrance is more accessible.”

“Steve, I need you to change my will.”


“I might die tonight. I need to cut my father out of my will.”

“Look, Sheila, I know you hate the man, but we can’t just stop now to change your will. First things first!”


“No? Are you nuts? I’m not going to stop the car now. I need to get you to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

I couldn’t believe we were having this argument. Then she amazed me.

“Can’t you do both?”

“No, Sheila! I can’t drive and alter your will at the same time.”

Then, to change the subject slightly, I asked her why she wanted to cut her father out of her will considering that he had given her every penny she had.

“It’s a matter of principle.”

“And what principle is that?”

“That he should have given me a lot more money. So is it fair that he ends up with still more of my money?”

Thankfully, at that very moment we pulled up at the hospital, and a couple of orderlies rushed out with a wheelchair.

I parked a few blocks away and went back to see her. A doctor had just finished examining her. She then had Sheila walk the length of the emergency room and back again.

Sheila seemed fine. The doctor told her that she could go home, and then asked, “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, doctor. Do you know anything about wills?”

Steve Slavin

A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math
and economics books. Over the last seven years he has also published four volumes of short stories, but he expects the pace to slow somewhat over the next seven years.

“John’s” by Ken Romanowski

Over ninety modest row homes occupied the two and three-hundred blocks of East Sheldon Street. Situated between C Street and Rising Sun Avenue, the homes formed a continuous line on either side of the street. The houses across from us were older, taller, and had a small flowerbed in front, whereas our homes, newer and smaller, had a small lawn in the front and back. Our block was flanked by C Street to the north and Rising Sun Avenue to the south.

Before we moved to Sheldon Street, we lived a few miles away on a block of even smaller row homes. It was there that Mom began to send me on errands. So, around five years of age, I started riding to the corner grocery store on my tricycle. Holding my little sister, Mom stood in the doorway with her red bandanna, light cardigan, and dark-colored slacks and watched me. I would ride my bike in my rolled-up dungarees and tee shirt and return with the goods in a basket secured behind me.

As I grew older, I graduated to the next level of independence and responsibility. So, when it was time for me to get a haircut when I turned eight, I could walk to the shop by myself. Nevertheless, there would be an impediment to reaching the barber shop — Rising Sun Avenue. John’s Barber Shop occupied a small storefront on Albanus Street near the other side of the Avenue. Albanus was not very wide, and its one-way traffic emptied onto Rising Sun, which was three times as wide as Sheldon with heavier and faster traffic. Driving it proved challenging to all because two sets of trolley tracks dominated its center lanes. Mom didn’t drive, so walking was my only option.

At one time, John cut hair at a hotel, but now, he was on his own in our neighborhood. An ebonite ashtray with the hotel name, a memento from times past, graced the ledge of his shop along with the instruments of his profession.  He posted his motto on a small sign on the store-length mirror: “It Takes Your Head to Run My Business.”

The day of the haircut, the plan was for Mom to call John and tell him that I was on my way. Mom and I would then walk along Sheldon Street until we came to Rising Sun Avenue where she’d make sure that I crossed safely to the other side. When we finished, John would briefly leave his shop and customers to watch me safely scamper to the other side of the avenue. I’d then head back to Sheldon Street.

Our plan didn’t unfold as we’d expected.

To find John’s number, Mom pulled out the phone book, which in Philadelphia was about two and a half inches thick at the time. Those White Pages were the go-to listing for telephone numbers and addresses. Mom proceeded to look for John’s, eventually coming to the right page and gliding her finger to the listing for what she thought was John’s Barber Shop. Mom was not wearing her reading glasses when her finger landed on John’s.

She called the number, and John answered.   

“Hello, John’s!”

“Hi, John, how are you doing?” Mom asked.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he said.

“I’d like to send my son over in a few minutes,” Mom said.

“Ok,” he said.

“And when he’s finished, could you help him across the street?” Mom asked.

After a brief moment of silence, John responded, “Huh?”

“Is this John the Barber?” Mom asked confused.

“No, this is John’s Bar!” John answered.

Both had a hearty laugh when they realized what had happened.

Mom then called John’s Barber Shop, made the proper arrangements, and proceeded to walk me toward Rising Sun Avenue. I safely crossed the busy thoroughfare and was on my way to getting my haircut by myself.

Mom guided me in those early years when I needed her most. Years later, we laughed as we remembered Mom calling the wrong John that day. That day was part of the process of many steps to maturity. I would eventually cross Rising Sun Avenue on my own, and years later, drive the family car along its embedded rails. When I became a parent and helped our daughter cross her own avenues, I fondly recalled the times when Mom was there to see me cross my own.

Ken Romanowski is a person of many and varied interests. Capping off a 45-year career in the business world, he is on the adjunct finance faculty at Rosemont College. Here he has found fertile ground to develop his teaching and writing skills. His love of the arts has been nurtured since childhood, and more recently, his inspiration is his wife, Linda, who recently completed her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction at Rosemont. He concentrates on non-fiction, especially as it relates to early American finance and lifestyle. He is also a regular contributor to online finance publications MoneyGeek and WalletHub.

“Come Here Often?” by Patty Somlo

Kevin O’Rourke had been a fixture in the bookstore for longer than anyone in the neighborhood could remember. At one time, the famous poet and owner of Left Bank Books had stood behind the counter, mostly chatting with up-and-coming writers, but occasionally working the register. When the store closed at ten o’clock, or even later on nights there had been a reading in the dark cramped space at the back, O’Rourke climbed the stairs to his spacious flat, where he’d lived going on five decades.

O’Rourke had never married. He was rumored to have been involved with many women, some famous and some not. On the list of his lovers were writers, as well as artists, actresses, and even a handful of models. As a younger man, O’Rourke’s hair had been thick, wavy and black. He wore it stylishly long. His blue eyes were the first thing women noticed, and then his smile.

He no longer stood behind the counter, but some days could be found in a worn upholstered green chair, situated in a quiet corner of the shop. The chair rested in front of a scratched oak coffee table, with other once-comfortable seats that had long ago lost their support. The chairs were meant to encourage customers to linger.

Everyone of a certain age had read O’Rourke’s poems in high school, which put the bookstore on a list of places to visit when in San Francisco. Since Left Bank Books was located in an area far from tourist attractions like Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the cable car line, a trip to the bookstore was considered daring, even a step on the wild side. Usually referred to as Upper Market, the neighborhood sat halfway between the predominantly gay Castro and the once mostly Latino, but changing, Mission District, filled with low-rise apartment buildings and some scattered Victorians, restaurants, and a few small stores.

As far as most people knew, O’Rourke didn’t write much anymore. He had taken up painting sometime after turning sixty. Every so often, he exhibited his paintings, all acrylics, in shows. Past eighty now, he didn’t have the energy to do a lot, other than come downstairs and walk around the store. At some point during the day, though, he usually stepped outside for a walk.

In recent years, his six-foot-two frame had shrunk. Miraculously, his hair remained thick, but had turned white. The eyes were still a deep, almost unsettling, blue, even though the skin surrounding them had become wrinkled and dry.

The neighborhood had changed in O’Rourke’s time living above the bookstore. When the shop first opened, working-class Irish-Americans and their families filled the flats and Victorians, including in the neighboring Castro. Gay men started moving in, painting the outsides of the homes’ elaborately carved facades scores of bright colors. Longtime residents decided it was time to head for the suburbs.

Inexpensive places for working-class families to live had vanished over the decades O’Rourke lived and worked in the neighborhood. Even when young people crowded into flats, turning dining and living rooms into bedrooms for more ways to split the rent, it still took high-tech salaries to live there. O’Rourke used to run across an occasional panhandler sitting with a sign alongside the sidewalk, asking for spare change. Now, entire tent cities existed, sheltering people who had nowhere else to live.

On his walk this day, O’Rourke found himself writing verses in his mind, about the unjust nature of life. Feet from the encampments, people were sitting in restaurants, sipping ten-dollar glasses of wine and eating dishes ordinary folks couldn’t pronounce. O’Rourke mentally scribbled words, tapping out a rhythm with the cane he’d started to use.

Instead of continuing to walk at least thirty minutes, which would mean he’d gone over a mile, O’Rourke was tempted to stop into a café down the street, where the Mission District started. He hadn’t been there for years, he realized. No, the more he thought about it, decades had passed since he’d been inside. Now that a vision of the place, La Roca, had come into his mind, O’Rourke pictured the air smoky and dark. Yes, at that time, the poets, artists and musicians, and the political activists, would still puff away in there, something the city banned ages ago.

O’Rourke was in his forties then, younger, though he’d felt old. There were all those poets and painters from Latin America, their hair long, smoking and talking, arguing about politics and writing and life. Some of them seemed to live in the café, each in his special seat. The memory brought tears to O’Rourke’s eyes.

In that moment, O’Rourke almost forgot his way, as he debated with himself whether or not to stop into the place. Was the cafe even there, after all these years? If it was, who might possibly still be sitting inside? No one he knew, he felt sure. With all that smoking, many of them had probably died.

O’Rourke spotted the sign, a white background with red lettering, after he passed the corner. “The alley,” he muttered quietly, spotting the dark narrow passageway to the left and recalling how the café appeared outside. As he got closer, he could see that someone had painted a brightly-colored mural on the alley wall. Unconsciously, he quickened his steps.

“Well, what do you know?” he said, his gaze fixed on the mural as he smiled.

It was, he could see, a picture of the café’s interior, with some of the regular crowd seated at their usual spots. Before this moment, he’d forgotten some of their names. But seeing the perfect likenesses, the names came back now. Daniel, the poet from El Salvador, sitting in the back corner by himself. And there was Alejandro, the singer with the sweet voice, holding his guitar.

O’Rourke was not expecting to find himself on the wall. Instead, he searched for patrons he hadn’t seen or thought about in decades. As he stood there picking out one after the other, recalling their names and certain qualities, he began to feel as if he’d stepped right back into the past, enjoying the feeling washing over him, a quiet contentment, being with the familiar crowd, but never sure what might happen. Yes, Rodrigo could suddenly climb atop his table and recite a verse he’d just scribbled there in the dark corner and everyone in the place would applaud. Or Alejandro would strum a new song and sing the words in that sweet tenor voice.

Or, and this only happened once in a while, a beautiful woman O’Rourke had never seen until that moment could walk in the door. She would stand there, waiting for her eyes to adjust, after the bright sunlight outside. O’Rourke would will her to come and sit at his table, close to the front door. Sure enough, a minute after he turned away, she would be standing there saying, “Is anyone sitting here,” her fingers resting on the back of a chair across from him.

As he faced the mural, O’Rourke lost all sense of time. By now, he’d forgotten about going into the café. Instead, the old poet returned to the years when so much seemed possible.

He was writing early in the morning then, before leaving the flat for the bookstore. If a woman was in his bed, he slipped out while she slept, brewed a cup of espresso in the small silver pot on the stove, and sipped it black, while sitting in the living room with the door closed. Words formed so quickly in his mind, he had trouble keeping up with his pen.

Of course, he wanted to know what had happened to the whole La Roca crowd. He moved his gaze from the mural to the café’s front door, debating again whether to go inside or not. What if none of the old crowd was there? What if the place was all spiffed up, as so much in the city had become? Wouldn’t that ruin the memories he’d unearthed, looking at the mural and its depiction of all the regulars?

The woman had come to stand next to O’Rourke at least ten minutes before. She hadn’t said a word, as she didn’t want to startle him or interrupt. She often came by the café, checking on the mural’s condition, to make sure none of the neighborhood kids had tagged it with graffiti. Interestingly, the taggers seemed to respect the art, even though they probably knew nothing about the café’s history or the people depicted on the wall.

Sometimes when Miranda, the artist who’d painted the mural, came by here, she ran into tourists admiring the wall. More often than not, they were foreigners, usually young, and often European, though she’d met Australians and occasionally visitors from Brazil or Argentina.

This old man did not look like a tourist. He must live nearby, she thought, probably out for a walk. It suddenly occurred to her that he might have been part of the crowd that hung out in the café, in the old days when the neighborhood was filled with writers and artists, and revolutionaries, whose lives weren’t dedicated to making gobs of money, because they didn’t need much to get by.

Miranda cleared her throat, to let the old man know she was standing there and avoid startling him. Lately, there had been attacks on the elderly, robbing them of anything valuable – a watch, a cell phone, a purse or wallet. The man suddenly turned to her. She could tell by the look on his face that he was a bit confused.

At the moment O’Rourke heard a sound that caused him to turn his head, he was sitting in his usual spot by the café’s front door, and a woman he’d never met had taken a seat across from him. She had long, straight dark brown hair, with a trace of red. Her eyes were green and he wondered if she might be Irish. O’Rourke enjoyed looking at her, and in his imagination now, he thought how much he would enjoy painting her. Maybe if things went well, he could make a suggestion for her to come back to his flat. Right before he turned his head, that thought had made him smile.

“Do you like the mural?” Miranda asked, a question she usually reserved for tourists.

“Oh,” O’Rourke said, surprised, as he hadn’t considered whether he liked it or not.

He didn’t answer at first, but instead thought about what he wanted to say. The pretty woman with the long dark hair was looking at him, waiting for a response.

O’Rourke wanted to say that he’d like to paint her. He would capture the light in her eyes, the shadows below her high cheekbones, and the slight space between her two top front teeth. Before inviting her to his flat, though, he knew he ought to ask something about her.

So, rather than respond to the woman’s question, O’Rourke posed a question of his own.

“Do you come here often?” he asked.

On hearing the question, Miranda realized the man seemed a bit senile, perhaps suffering from dementia. He might have wandered away from a caregiver. Someone could be frantically searching for him now. She wanted to help, so, instead of answering his question, she asked, “Do you live around here?”

Hearing the question, O’Rourke smiled.

“Yes. Just up the street and around the corner. Would you like to see my place?”

Miranda smiled now too.

“Yes, I would,” she said.

So, threading her right arm through the old man’s left, she let him take the lead, as O’Rourke began to fantasize the wonderful time he and this woman were soon going to have.

Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.

“The Eagle and Mrs. B.” by Linda Romanowski

Many a Philadelphia area college student spent those post-Thanksgiving/Pre-Christmas days working at one of the “Big Three” department stores in Center City: Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, or John Wanamaker’s. Due to my mother’s influence, I thought working at Wanamaker’s was the best of all worlds. After all, who could resist the classy interior and exterior window displays, the jagged mountain range stroke of the owner’s signature on the side of the building, and the transportation proximity?

Two other striking figures claimed the store’s signature distinction: the Wanamaker eagle and the annual Christmas fountain and light show. The serene and imposing gilded bronze aviary statue was the focal point for gathering, for claiming  “lost parents,” and for bon voyages until next time.

Lifting one’s eyes to the sights, sounds, and waving fountain streams of the hourly Christmas performance stopped shoppers in their tracks and delighted the minds of wide-eyed youngsters who rarely cried during those few minutes of awe. My first recollection of seeing the aqua wonder made me fearful, thinking at any moment, the fountains would fall from their upper stage perch and drown the audience below, extinguishing the prancing lights in the process.

Not every pair of eyes welcomed this holiday diversion. My first Christmas working season in the children’s department in 1972 provided a novel view of the saleswomen employed at the makeup counters. The daily music grinding of “Frosty the Snowman” did nothing for their business. No cash registers rung in harmony with “O, Christmas Tree.” Gazers leaned on their pristine cosmetic display cases; their backs turned away from the porcelain faces of Estee Lauderettes, who resorted to makeup remover to erase the handprints and elbow marks on their precious encasements of promised beauty and glamour. No allure of scented bottled blossoms could overpower the lofty sounds and scenery above the audience. It must have been the bane of their existence, their dreams of pocket money ruined by lit-up distraction. One year, I counted viewing thirty-six performances of Rudolph’s very shiny unpowdered nose glowing across the ceiling.


Every college student on Wanamaker’s holiday payroll hoped to work for the main floor supervisor, Mrs. B., known for her kindness. She was a smartly dressed, middle-aged Jewish lady, brownish-black hair coiffed to perfection, with no-nonsense eyeglasses attached to a pearl chain that hung elegantly around her neck. Her high-heeled pumps that coordinated with every outfit gave her an acceptable height, appearing taller than she was. Her trim figure clicked in tandem with her stride. Mrs. B. took the time to acquaint herself with several of us. One afternoon, during the height of the Christmas rush, she announced that she would retain us for the week after Christmas. We were delighted, as it meant money for next semester’s textbooks would be less of an issue. All we needed to do was follow her instructions without variation.

When we punched in on the time clock on December 26th, Mrs. B. led us to an unfamiliar store area, one at a time. We were placed separately in obscure areas of dressing rooms and stock areas, out of the view of the “suits” who might sniff through the aisles looking for post-holiday imperfections. There were close calls, but none of us were spotted. Had we been “caught,” we would say we were Christmas shopping to maintain our ruse. During that week, Mrs. B. was ubiquitous, her eagle eyes surpassing that stony sculpture’s glance on the first floor. We functioned seamlessly as the suits paraded the aisles, praising Mrs. B. for her diligence and attention to detail. I’ll always wonder if the Wanamaker eagle suspected her and kept the secret, among all the others, under its ornate-clad feathers.

Linda M. Romanowski is a graduate of Rosemont College, in 1975 with a BA in Psychology and Elementary Education, and this past May as an MFA graduate in Creative Non-fiction. She was assistant editor of Non-fiction for Rathalla magazine, Rosemont’s literary publication. Her Italian heritage-based thesis, “Final Touchstones”, earned with distinction, is scheduled for publication by Sunbury Press within the coming months. Several of the essays from her pending book were published on City Key, Ovunque Siamo and the Mario Lanza Institute Facebook page. She recently reviewed Ellen Stone’s poetry book “What is in the Blood” for the online Philadelphia Stories 2021 Fall issue. Her poem, “Seen In Translation” was selected for inclusion in the Moonstone Arts Center Protest 2021-100 Thousand Poets for Change.

“Lips Boudreaux” by James Knipp

The fat guy at the bus stop reminded Leonard of Tug Rooney.  He didn’t especially look like Tug.   The fat guy was tall and white and had the well-fed jowls and loud, bright voice of a suburban Rotarian, while Tug was short and gimpy with ashen skin and an asthmatic wheeze brought on by breathing decades of smoke.  It was more in the way they both could spin into a tale, the way the audience leaned in expectantly, especially the ladies, and how each always ended with a flourish, riding a wave of laughter through the finish.  Leonard had once asked Tug how he did it, how he commanded such attention. 

Tugs had put one hand on the back of Leonard’s neck and drew the younger man closer so he could smell the stale beer and cigar smoke that seeped from his pores.  He pointed at Leonard, the ever-present stub of cigar wedged between his fingers and said in his broken, sibilant croak, “Lips, you believe in what you say, people will follow, understand?”

Leonard, not quite a whisker past twenty at the time, didn’t, but he nodded all the same.  That was just how he was with Tug, when he asked, you nodded.  He had that way of making you agree.

The Rotarian at the bus stop finished his story and the ladies around him cackled laughter.  A bus growled up to the stop, belching diesel, and he strode away.  The ladies watched him leave with bird-like avidity, their eyes bright and admiring.

“He’s so nice,” one of them whispered.  The others nodded approvingly.

More buses came to the stop.  Brakes bellowed mournful whale song.  One by one, the ladies folded behind hissing pneumatic doors to be carried away to kitchens and dinner tables in Cherry Hill and Collingswood and Washington Township.  To husbands and children and houses that would soon grow dark and quiet as the winters night settled slowly around them and their day came to an end.

Leonard pulled his coat tighter and shivered. It wasn’t as cold as it should be, not for January, but it was cold enough.  He should head to the shelter.  They would put him up for the night, make sure he had something warm, but the bench held him fast.  The traffic along Broad Street thinned.  He watched long shadows stretch from the giant paintbrush, a silly and gaudy thing that sat next to the Fine Arts Academy and thought of Tug, and the club, and how he used to make that trumpet say things he never could in his own voice.

“Lips, you wouldn’t say shit even if you had a mouthful,” Tug would holler from his seat by the bar.  And Leonard would nod, and then Buster would start plinking that piano, and Milo tap on that snare, and Leonard would raise that trumpet to his mouth and he would disappear, and Lips Boudreaux would fill his spot. Only then would he speak, the wailing notes letting everyone at The Trap know about pain and loss and redemption.

“Don’t listen to him, hon,” Billie had said.  “That old fool been talking shit so long, he don’t know how to shut up.”  They had been naked when she said that, wrapped together under dingy sheets in his apartment above the club. The flickering neon sign cast them into discordant reds and washed out white.  Tug owned the sign, the club, the apartment Leonard rented.  Hell, he owned Leonard himself, courtesy of the contract Leonard signed the day he arrived in Philly, a battered, all-but-empty valise in his left hand, his trumpet case clutched in his right.  Tug had heard him play, had taken him out to buy a steak, and a new suit, even a woman; and then he had laid the crispy, white contract before him and urged him to sign.

Leonard had read it, or tried to.  The words swam before him, blurred by liquor and obscured by the promise of $50 per week, a king’s ransom back in Holmes County.  “What does ‘perpetuity’ mean?” he had asked.  Tug fixed him with rheumy grin, clapped him on the back, and said, “It means until you don’t want to play no more, son.”  Leonard had nodded and signed.  He had his doubts, his mother didn’t raise a fool, but to not sign meant getting back on that train to Mississippi and he couldn’t do that.  He had failed in New Orleans, he damn well wasn’t going to fail up here.

Bright light pulled him from the past.  A police car pulled to the curb, its searchlight speared the darkness and pinned Leonard to the bench.  He stiffened, and remembered a time when this might lead to billy clubs and beatings, even in the so-called enlightened north.  He never got caught up in that, and when the earnest young men would appear at the club and urge him to lend his voice to a cause, he simply demurred. People were people, and nothing he said could change that. Milo went to the rallies, sometimes came back with blackened eyes he wore as a badge of honor.  “What’s right is right, Lips. And this ain’t right.”  But Leonard would just shrug, and play on.  He supposed the abuse still happened today, at least that what the papers left on his bench said.  The light flicked off and a voice called from the darkness

“You’re not planning on sleeping here?”

Leonard jumped.  The voice that called out from the cruiser was Milo’s.  He’d know it anywhere.  Then he remembered that Milo was in Jersey, buried next to his wife.  He tried to peer through the open window of the vehicle and a face swam out of the void.  Not Milo at all, just a young cop making the rounds.

“Sir, you can’t sleep here.  Snow’s coming.”

Indeed, flakes had already begun to fall, coating the bench in a thin layer of cotton.

“Yes, sir,” Leonard called. His voice cracked in the frozen air.  He pointed towards city hall and the shadowed bus that lumbered around the corner. ‘I’m just waiting on the 400.”

The cop shrugged.  The car pulled away.  Tug, dead these passed forty years, stood beneath the giant paintbrush across the street, nearly obscured by the falling snow.  Leonard shook his head, rubbed his eyes and Tug disappeared, replaced by the plastic dollop of paint that completed the sculpture.  Oldenburg’s Paint Torch they called it.  Milo would have called it a giant pile of Day-Glo dogshit, and laughed that crazy laugh.

Milo had been the one to introduce him to Billie.  She was his wife’s cousin. He brought her in to watch them play, and when their regular singer that summer – some college girl who had run off to get married and left them hanging like forgotten laundry – Billie had stepped in. She stopped the world that night, her voice a huge and living thing that filled every corner and made people forget their drinks, their conversations, to turn their head and just listen.

Tug had been there with the contract before she even finished that first set, that same rheumy grin he laid on Leonard four years earlier.  Billie had taken one look, and laughed that smoky laugh that singed every nerve ending in Leonard’s body.

“Take that thing away, Mr. Rooney.  You want me to sing for you, I’ll sing, but I ain’t signing my name to nothing that don’t involve records.”

The contract disappeared, never mentioned again.  And Billie King became their regular singer.  For seven years she belted out the favorites.  For seven years she brought people in, from Philly, of course, but also from Jersey, and New York, and Baltimore.  Leonard didn’t remember exactly when they became lovers. They got along immediately, fell into each other’s cadences and rhythms.  He instinctively knew when to let the horn fade, to let her voice carry the song, and knew when it was time to step forward and let the horn do the talking.  And then one day they shared a bed.  That simple.  No pronouncements of love or devotion, they just slid into place, like they belonged.

“You know the best thing about you, hon?” She often said, while his head lay on her breast and her fingers traced fiery trails through his scalp.  “You know when to step back and let a girl shine.”

That was of course before the big fight.  Before the record man came with his promises and lured her away to California.

“Come with me,” she urged.  “You can play horn out there, too.”

He had gone to Tugs.   Told him he didn’t want to play for him anymore and was heading to California.  Tugs pulled open the drawer of the decrepit filing cabinet crouched in the corner of the office behind the bar.  Metal scraped against metal in a discordant screech and Leonard winced.  Tug retrieved the contract, slapped it on the desk, and stabbed one stubby finger into the center.

“See this word, ‘perpetuity’, it means ‘till I don’t want you here no more.”

By then Leonard had known what it meant.  Until then, he’d had no reason to care.

 “You can’t stop me from leaving, Tug.”

Tug had grinned, and Leonard knew in that moment he’d lost.

“Sure I can’t stop you, but I can sue you.  No one likes a contract breaker, Lips.”   Tug had paused, clouded eyes fixed to Leonard’s face.  He shook his head.

“Ah, hell, Lips.  I don’t care about the goddamn contract.”  Tug sat back in the chair.  The springs squealed. He blew smoke towards the ceiling.

“Billie’s going to be big.  Too big for you.  She’ll leave you in a year, and then what will you do?”   He turned back toward Leonard, pointed towards him with the cigar.  “And if she don’t, you’ll hold her back.  You gottta see that, right?”

Leonard had nodded.  Of course Tug was right.  Billie King didn’t need a second rate trumpet player to back her up, not when she could have a Kenny Dorham or a Chet Baker, or even a Miles Davis.  Leonard was small time.  He had failed in New Orleans, and had no guarantees he’d do anything good in California.  Philly was where he belonged, and in Philly he had to stay.

A bus stopped.  The woman sitting next to him, a shapeless shadow bundled against the cold, hurried towards the open door.  She paused and looked back, and in the warm inviting light spilling from the bus he saw Billie’s cocoa skin and aquiline nose.  Soft trumpet emanated from within the bus, a little Stella by Starlight. She smiled, stepped onto the bus and disappeared behind the polarized glass.

“I should have gone with you, Billie,” he murmured.  The snow fell harder and he pulled his jacket tighter.  Miles’ trumpet continued from somewhere in the darkness, echoing off silent buildings.  Stella had always been their favorite.

He had brought her few small bags to the car the record company sent.  They looked lost in the cavernous trunk of the new Eldorado.  She had waited for him by the back door, silent, eyes damp, beseeching.  She touched his face.  “It’s not too late.”

He put his head down. “I can’t leave.  This is where I belong.”

 Billie sobbed softly and slid into the back seat of the Cadillac.  The car pulled away and he watched until it disappeared down Broad Street.

Her first record came out a year later.  Then a second and a third.  He had bought them all, filled the apartment with her voice.  Some nights he pulled out his horn and played along.  She never got to play with Miles, but the trumpets that accompanied her were accomplished enough.  He saw her once, briefly, on the television, her hair done up in a style she’d never worn back here, some outlandish fur draped around her shoulders.  She had been sitting with a man he did not recognize and they both laughed uproariously as the camera caught them.  That laughter never touched her eyes though.  In that brief moment, it seemed to Leonard that something essential was missing.

And then she was gone.  Stolen by a demon that lived in a needle. Ruined by men that drained every last drop of spirit from her and cast her empty shell aside. That night at the club he launched into the solo they had worked into Stella by Starlight and kept going, his horn shouting over that year’s singer.  She muttered “Lips, Christ” but he continued.  One by one they stopped playing around him.  Buster’s piano tinkled to a stop, Milo gave one last hissing tap on a cymbal.  Silence fell over the club and he felt the weight of four dozen eyes fall upon him. He kept blowing, pouring everything into the horn, lamenting promises broken, wailing into an indifferent world for everything lost and forgotten.  And when he was finally spent, when the last note faded into the smoke-tinged darkness he had stood, panting on the stage, and thought that one is for you, Billie.  Always for you.

“You played beautifully that night,” Billie said from beside him.  Leonard started, snow sliding from his shoulders.

“Best I ever did,” he answered to the empty bench beside him.

Tug died the following spring, the cancer that had sprung from his throat spread through his body like the kudzu back in Holmes County.  Leonard sat by his hospital bed and watched captor and friend disappear beneath a confusing array of tubes and wires.  Milo came by several times and together they talked about twenty years of shouts from the corner of the bar, of singers come and gone (After Billie, Juanita had been their agreed upon favorite), of the places the music had taken them.  Tug’s sons, sober young men without a note in their soul stopped by, checked in, and left, often without saying a word to the two old musicians sitting bedside.  Leonard often wondered if they even saw him.

The boys sold the building and The Trap joined the parade of jazz clubs that disappeared from Broad Street –  Zanzibars,  Checkies, Suede – all buried under concrete and glass monstrosities that urged people to buy, buy, buy.  Drugstore chains and clothing stores piping ersatz music that spoke to no one, and concert halls that no one could afford.

He sometimes stopped on the corner, using his trumpet to tempt loose change into the old case, until someone – a manager or a cop – told him to leave.  He found jobs, especially in the nineties when the Jazz scene began to make a comeback and the clubs sprung up in the North East, but work was sparse now.  No one really wanted a tired, old horn player.

A flourish of trumpet and light flared from the empty convention center behind him.  He turned, amazed at the crowd of people, sitting in twos and threes around tiny tables that had sprung out of nothing.

“I hope you ain’t sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, sugar,” Billie said.  She grabbed his hand and placed it against her warm cheek.  “You’ve had a lot of good, too.”

“That’s right, Billie,” he whispered.  “And you was the best part of it.”

“Hey now,” Milo laughed from beside him.  “You and me had some times together too.”

Leonard whirled.  Milo leaned casually on a column, cigarette tucked beneath his lip, a spare drumstick wedged behind his ear.  Tug stood next to him, a trumpet case in his hand.  The convention center doors stood open. A quartet stage set up and waited for the music to start. Buster already sat at the piano.  Milo flicked his cigarette and sauntered inside, his long hands beating a rhythm against his narrow chest.  Billie gave him a lingering kiss and slid away.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Sugar.”

Tug remained outside, his head cocked, cigar clenched in the corner of his mouth.  He raised the trumpet case towards him.

“What do you say, Lips.  You gonna honor that contract?”

“That was never a fair contract, Tug.  You know that.”

Tug grinned and shrugged. Leonard took the trumpet.  The old club owner waddled away in an acrid cloud of cigar smoke.  Leonard unclasped the case and found his old horn, the good one with the pearl-inlaid buttons that Billie had bought him before she left.  He had sold it for rent money.

Inside the convention center, Buster plinked on the keyboard.  Milo beat a light staccato on the snare.  Billie scatted some scales, something she loved to tease the crowd with before each set.  The audience murmured its approval, and Leonard felt sudden warmth blaze in his chest.  His heart pounded, his lungs filled with air and he felt it, the music, coursing through him, waiting for release.   He placed the trumpet to his lips, let the horn wail, his fingers jumping nimbly through notes, making them dance like fireflies in the Mississippi twilight.  Billie gave a primal shout and opened her arms and Lips Boudreaux strode up to the stage.  It was time for him to do some talking, and he had a lot to say. The snow fell and grew into a shroud, covering Leonard in white that would remain undisturbed until morning.  Somewhere from the darkness, a horn wailed, and for a moment the few remaining souls who wandered Broad Street stopped and marveled as the note spoke to them of love and hope and the knowledge that all things lost will someday be found again.

James Knipp is a graduate of Rutgers College with a BA in English. He is the creator of the humor blog KnippKnopp and a frequent contributor to the pop culture site Biff Bam Pop He has had work published in Crypt-GnatsPhilly Flash Inferno and the anthologies Long Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey and In a Flash.  Jim’s first book, Everything you Need to Know About Being a Grandfather (Quirk Books) was published in 2019.