First Contact

When the aliens arrived, we asked the scientists to figure out what they had come for first.

We asked the science fiction writers next.

We should have asked the poets sooner. They came for love.

“First Contact” was originally published in 2018 by Cuento Magazine, which has retweeted it as one of eight stories from its first eight years as part of its anniversary celebration.


Angels Flight

“This isn’t working,” I admitted. “Not anymore.”

Heidi and I stood next to the gate at the bottom of what the dog-eared guidebook we had purchased when we decided to move to Southern California assured us was “The Shortest Railway in the World.” Riding it was the only item on the guidebook’s list of “The Top 25 Things to Do in Los Angeles” that we hadn’t checked off.

As the sun set, however, none of the dozen light bulbs lining the arch that topped the pillars at the station on Hill Street turned on. Painted in black on orange, the two words at its pinnacle – Angels Flight – threatened to disappear into the twilight. The twin funicular cars sat, stalled, at opposite ends of the approximately 300-foot track to the top of Bunker Hill.

“I told you our guidebook was out of date,” Heidi sighed. Leaning against the peeling paint of one of the pillars, she slipped her smartphone out of her pants pocket. After tapping out Angels Flight on its touchscreen, she hit the Search button on its web browser.

“According to this article in the Times, the National Transportation Safety Bureau shut down the Angels Flight after a quote-unquote ‘minor derailment’ a few weeks ago,” she summarized. “Apparently, the operators were using a tree branch to hold down the start button.”


As she attempted to scroll through the article, frustration started to set in. “Hold on, hold on, my signal isn’t strong here…. The use of the stick appears to have been an attempt on the part of the operators to, to … override a safety system that had detected a problem.”

I looked down at the guidebook in my hand. “Just trying to ignore the problem, to go through the motions – up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill, up the hill—”

“Yes, then down the hill,” she snapped. “I see the pattern, Charlie. But what was the point of it? Why up and down this hill, day after day?”

In the deepening darkness, I squinted at the description of the Angels Flight in our guidebook. “When it was built in 1901, Bunker Hill was a fancy neighborhood full of prosperous people whose homes were at the top of the hill and whose jobs were at the bottom of the hill. Before all the affluent folks abandoned downtown for the suburbs, the Angels Flight used to make 400 trips a day up the hill—”

“Yes, then down the hill,” she sighed. “Why are we still here, Charlie?”

“You mean, why is the Angels Flight still here?”

“No, I mean why are we still here, in Los Angeles?”

“Because we haven’t done all ‘The Top 25 Things to Do in Los Angeles’ yet?” I flourished the foldout checklist tucked inside the cover of the guidebook. The 24 checkmarks weren’t all in the same color ink. Hell, they weren’t even all checkmarks – a couple of the boxes had Xs in them, instead; one was simply filled in neatly, like an answer on the form for a standardized test. But that wasn’t the answer she wanted.

Without a word, Heidi tore the checklist out of the guidebook. Ripped it apart.

As she shredded it, I suddenly understood that checklist had become our tree branch – an attempt to override our problems. Since we had decided last weekend to ride the Angels Flight, to check the last item off the list, I had had the words of “Angel From Montgomery” – the live version that John Prine and Bonnie Raitt duet on – in my mind. All week, I has assumed the connection to our visit to the Angels Flight was simply the “angel that flies” in the chorus.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.

Make me a poster of an old rodeo.

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to.

To believe in this living is just a hard way to go….

But the words that came to my mind at that moment, the ones from the last verse, those were the ones that truly mattered.

And I ain’t done nothing

Since I woke up today.

How the hell can a person

Go to work in the morning

And come home in the evening

And have nothing to say?

Heidi and I had nothing left to say to one another, had nothing left to do with one another. Without that checklist, we had nothing left.

Silent at last, we stared at one another for what felt like a long time. Finally, she looked down at the wreckage of the guidebook.

“I never meant to stay,” she whispered.

I nodded. “You just meant to be a tourist.”

Here, at last, was our delayed derailment. Like the Angels Flight, we weren’t working. Not anymore.

“Angels Flight” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2015.



Before 9/11, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wasn’t as cautious about whom it let in. Neither was I.


At the end of our first date, I took her to MSP. We weren’t going anywhere – except to the observation deck in the Lindbergh Terminal.


It was late, so when she sat on the scale at the check-in counter and announced that she had baggage, there was no one who could handle it.

Moving Sidewalk

In Concourse D, we held hands on the moving sidewalks. Although we were standing still, there was an illusion of momentum.

Observation Deck

As we watched the planes through the windowed walls of the observation deck, I wondered whether this date was an arrival or a departure.


After all her baggage caused us to crash, I finally laughed at the symbolism of a first date at an airport, at a place called a “terminal.”

The Twitter fiction serial “Terminal” appears in its entirety for the first time on MY 40. “Moving Sidewalk” and “Observation Deck” were originally published by Confettifall in 2014, and “Baggage” was originally published by Twiction Addiction in 2014.

The Tallboy

Doubt that anyone on the streetcar clattering across the steel bridge noticed us at the edge of the river, let alone the circle of empty Pabst cans we had arranged around the base of the white cross. I had loved him the most; that’s why I left the tallboy. The rest left 12-ouncers.

“The Tallboy” was originally published by Microfiction Monday Magazine in 2015.


We’re having a hard time understanding each other. The two walkie-talkies we purchased at Radio Shack, so we could communicate between our separate cars in remote areas without cell coverage during our cross-country move, crackle with static.

“What?” Heidi asks inside her car, packed with all her possessions – including the wobbly wooden chair with the worn orange cushion she hadn’t been able to bring herself to donate to Goodwill earlier this morning.

“Do you need to stop for gas?” I repeat, then consult the handwritten list of walkie-talkie terminology taped to my dashboard. I had taped a matching one to her dash. “Do you copy?”

“Copy that,” she replies. Chuckling, she takes a moment to consult the list. “Umm … negatory on that.”

“Do you need to stop for a bathroom break?”

“Negatory. Do you need to stop?”


“For gas?”


“For a bathroom break? Already? Are you, like, a little kid? We pull away from the curb, and you immediately need to—”

I cut her off. “Negatory.”

“For what, then, Charlie?”


“For this?” Heidi asks as she climbs out of her car in Downtown St. Paul. Above us stands the pyramidal red-tiled roof of the pink granite Romanesque Revival clock tower of Landmark Center. “You are like a little kid.”

“This won’t take long,” I promise as I open one of the cardboard boxes – labeled with the word “t-shirts,” written in black permanent marker – in my trunk. The black zigzag on the chest of the yellow shirt I retrieve from it looks similarly hand-drawn.

“Good grief!” she exclaims at the sight of the shirt.

“That’s supposed to be my line. After all, I’m—”

“A blockhead?” she suggests. “What else did you pack in that box? A kite for that tree to eat? A football for me to pull away at the last second?”

“Is that what you think I think? That, by asking me to move to California with you, you cost me the chance to actually kick in a college game?”

“Is that what you think? Because I didn’t think that – until now.”

Suddenly desperate to look anywhere but her eyes, I pretend to study the shirt in my hands. The zigzag, I suppose, wasn’t meant to symbolize anything in particular – just a simple pattern that was easy to draw over and over in thousands and thousands of comic strips. At this moment, though, it seems to symbolize the constant ups and downs of a relationship – of a life spent together. Or apart.

This down? I doubt it’ll take us too low. Just to the base of such a steep up – if only we can end this detour and get back to our trip.

“Look,” I say, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to communicate in some sort of passive-aggressive secret code by bringing us here.”

“So, you didn’t pack a football?”

“No,” I assure her, “just a camera. I just thought … Charles Schulz was a little like me: a German-American – a Charles who was the son of a Carl – who was born in Minnesota, but then moved to California. I just thought … there’s this statue of Charlie Brown and Snoopy in St. Paul, near the start of our journey, and there’s another one of the two of them in Santa Rosa, near the end of it. I just thought … take one picture here, take one there.”

“That’s so sweet. You are like a little kid – one who hasn’t taken geography yet.”


“I’m pretty sure Santa Rosa and Long Beach are on opposite ends of California.”

“Totally worth the detour: It’s where they filmed my second-favorite Hitchcock movie, Shadow of a Doubt, and my second-favorite Coen Brothers’ movie, The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

“We’ll talk about it during the drive.” She shakes her head, then pulls her walkie-talkie out of her hip pocket. “Do you copy?”

“Copy that.”

“All right. Let’s take this picture, then start this trip.”

“Let’s,” I agree.

Hand-in-hand, we walk toward the bronze statue sitting in the shade of a tree there in Landmark Park. As far as I can see, there are no kites stuck in the tree.

“Landmark” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2016.

A Grande Americano

“A grande Americano,” the barista stopped to smirk, “for—”

“Don’t say it,” I snapped, plunging my hand into the tip jar on the corner of the counter in the coffee shop.

“—a grande Americano.”

I withdrew the dollar I had deposited there earlier.

“Worth it,” he proclaimed.

“A Grande Americano” was originally published by 50-Word Stories in 2014.

Train, Going Through a Tunnel

I have my earbuds in, so I don’t hear what the woman next to me on the train says the first time. Since she’s in the seat to my right, I tug on the cord connected to the headphone in the corresponding ear.

When she sees it pop out, she repeats herself. “Which Hitchcock movie is it where he cuts from the shot of the couple in a sleeper car to the shot of the train going through a tunnel?”

North by Northwest,” I answer. “We all laughed when we watched it in my film studies class back in college. Why?”

“While you were lost in thought, the conductor announced the train was about to go through a tunnel,” she reported.

With her dry delivery, the meaning of her remark isn’t obvious—on either a metaphorical or a literal level.

But then she slips her left hand onto my right thigh. “What are you thinking about, baby?”

“Oh,” I stall, turning toward the window. I pretend to stare at the Cascade Mountains. “Just the scenery,” I lie.

Because the truth is, I am thinking about another girl, on another train.


On that train, I pretended to stare at the Alps. When our train pulled into Interlaken, the Let’s Go guide open on my lap informed me, the view would be dominated by a mountain named the Jungfrau. At that moment, though, I was trying to avoid the sight of a different young girl.

With little more than Eurail Passes to get us onto trains and International Student Identity Cards to get us into hostels, she and I had been backpacking across Europe for a few weeks. If we had been telling the truth to each other just then, which we weren’t, we would have had to admit that we were a little tired of each other. Some of our romantic notions had been strained, especially the ones about romance. Staying at those hostels had had a lot to do with that, as we’d rush into our room with, say, the warmth of the bottle of burgundy we’d drank under the Eiffel Tower coursing through all the appropriate parts of our bodies—to find about a dozen other travellers strewn on the bunk beds, sharing a bottle of absinthe one of them had smuggled out of Prague. Then they’d take turns staggering to the communal restroom to throw up in the toilet, if we were lucky. Or in the shower, if we weren’t.

Ah, Paris: The City of Love.

So often deprived of the privacy she and I needed to make love, this woman—who would later become my wife, then become my ex-wife—was starting to suggest other ways I could make my ardor apparent in public.

“What are you writing about?” she had asked as I had scribbled on the lined pages of my Moleskine notebook.

“Just the scenery,” I had replied. That time, I had been telling the truth. “I’m trying to learn the exact terms to describe the mountains from the guidebook—”

“You should be writing about me,” she interrupted, “about how the beauty of the Alps pales compared to mine.”

For a moment, I had just stared at her. Then I had ripped out the page of the notebook on which I had been attempting to describe the beauty of the Alps. Robotically, I had read aloud the words I wrote on the next: “The beauty of the Alps pales compared to—”

“Oh, forget it,” she had snapped.

That’s when I had turned to pretend to stare at the Alps. But, if I had been telling the truth to myself just then, which I wasn’t, I would have had to admit that I was feeling some of the same frustration as she was. So, when I noticed that our train was about to penetrate a tunnel, it just slipped out.

“There’s this Hitchcock movie—North by Northwest—where he cuts from a shot of a couple in a sleeper car to a shot of a train going through a tunnel.”

“Ah, Charlie,” she sighed, “my master of useless trivia.”

“It’s,” I stammered, “it’s just that I was thinking … it’s too bad we couldn’t … afford a sleeper car.”

“Hmm. Maybe that trivia isn’t so useless.” She stared at me, expectantly.

When I didn’t respond, she leaned close. “This is the moment,” she whispered, “you’re supposed to suggest that, when we enter the darkness of the tunnel, we could sneak into the restroom together and … make your train go through my tunnel.”

I blushed, shook my head. I could imagine the rest of the passengers staring at us as we emerged from that restroom, smirking at an imperfect performance as inauthentic as my earlier reading. Because with that woman, on that train, I felt uncomfortable.


I turn away from the window on this train, with its view of the Cascades. I swallow, then lean close to this woman’s ear.

“So,” I whisper, “is this the moment I’m supposed to suggest that, when we enter the darkness of the tunnel, we could sneak into the restroom together and … make my train go through your tunnel?”

“We could, if we were the type of fiancées who sneak into restrooms together.” She chuckles, then points to my iPod. “Or we could just listen to Train, going through a tunnel.”

I smile, trying not to sigh with the relief I feel. “We could, if I was the type of fiancée who owns Train songs.”

It’s suddenly dark. We’re entering the tunnel.

“Well, let’s sing one, instead,” she suggests. “What are the words to ‘Drops of Jupiter’?”

“Um, ‘With drops of Jupiter—’?”

“‘—in her—’?”





Maybe I’d feel differently, if it wasn’t dark, if I could see the rest of the passengers stare at us, smirk at our imperfect performance. But this is authentic. Because with this woman, on this train, I feel comfortable.

“Train, Going Through a Tunnel” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2016.


Soon Enough

Post-plastic-bag-ban, he has taken to crumpling up an old one and stashing it in a back pocket before runs to the corner store.

At the cash register, he pulls it out. Sighs as he attempts to iron out the wrinkles with the edge of the countertop. “Used to be, all I put into crumpled plastic bags was shit.”

The cashier shrugs. Points to the customer’s hip, prepackaged meal. “Will be, soon enough.”

“Soon Enough” was originally published by Paragraph Planet in 2014.


“Carnegie” is engraved in the granite lintel of the old library that is about to become a pile of bricks.

“Carnegie” is embossed in the leather cover of the old library book on top of the pile I’m moving into the modern one next door.

The message seems clear: Better to have your name on a book in a library than to have your name on a library. Better to be Dale than Andrew.

“Carnegie” was originally published by Paragraph Planet in 2014.