Monument Valley


“Look, kids: Monument Valley!” my father forgot to announce. I wished that he had. I wished that he had a horse. I wished that he had stopped his horse, that he had pulled up on its reins, that he had sipped water from a canteen to wet his whistle before he had shouted out the announcement. Instead, he kept pressing the gas pedal of his minivan and sipping diet root beer from a can. I wished that he had had a pickup and a sarsaparilla, at least.

“Monument Valley” was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2013 by 1000 Words.

The Purple Onion

You gotta a lotta nerve

To say you are my friend.

When I was down,

You just stood there, grinning. 

– Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street”


“Don’t you love how the capital O in Onion is shaped like an onion—?”

“—And the neon inside it is purple?”

“It’s so perfect, yet it’s so simple: The Purple Onion.”

“It’s so perfect because it’s so simple.”

“Two steamed milks? One with caramel for the lady—”


“—And one with vanilla for the gentleman.”





“Steamers. Started drinking them whenever I went to write—well, to try to write—at Hard Times on the West Bank. Because, well, what else do you drink at a coffee shop when you don’t—”

“—Drink coffee?”

“‘When you don’t drink coffee,’ exactly. I love it—I mean, like it—when we finish each other’s sentences.”


“Um…. So….”


“So… you don’t drink coffee, either?”



“Let’s not start that again.”

“No, no—”

“Hey, that’s my line.”


“That second no. I thought we were starting a new pattern of repetition.”

So, so, so, um—”

Um, um, um, so—”

No, no, no—”

No, no, no!”

“I love—I mean, I like—that! The music of language!”

“Exactly! That’s why I picked this place for our first official date.”

“I was wondering about that, seeing as—”

“—Neither of us drink coffee?”

“‘Seeing as neither of us drink coffee,’ exactly. So?”

“So, I picked The Purple Onion because you are a writer, and you go to the University of Minnesota, so—”

“—I must admire Bob Dylan.”

“Exactly! And when Bob Dylan—

“—Who was a writer, and who—”

“—Went to the University of Minnesota, one of the places he played was The Purple Onion.”



“That wasn’t this Purple Onion.”


“No, that was a pizza place in St. Paul, not—”

“—A coffee shop in Minneapolis? But isn’t this on—?”

“4th Street? Positively.”

“You’re positive?”

“That this is 4th Street?”

“That Dylan never played here?”

“Positive: Dylan never played here.”

“Then why is his song ‘Positively 4th Street’?”

“Because he lived here.”


“Well, there.”

“There? In Gray’s Campus Drug?”

“Well, above Gray’s Campus Drug. In a rented room.”

“But I thought he lived in—”

“—Your apartment?”

“Exactly. Because—”

“—Your landlord told you Dylan had lived in it?”

“Exactly. How do you know that?”

“Because my landlord told me the same story.”

“That Dylan had lived in my apartment?”

“That Dylan had lived in my apartment.”

“What? You used to live in my apartment?”

“What? No, no—”

“Hey, that’s my line.”

“I love—I mean, I like—you.”


“Um…. All I meant was—”

“It’s OK. I feel like that about you, too.”

“You do?”

“I do.”

“Whoah, there. I know I’m the one who let the L-word—the L-words—slip, but isn’t it still a little early for I do?”

“Is it? Apparently, we’ve already lived in the same apartment.”

“No, no—”

“Hey, that’s my line.”

“You’re—I mean, that’s—adorable. Really. But—”


“We haven’t lived in the same apartment.”

“Then how did you know—”

“—Your landlord told you Dylan had lived in it? Because, in Dinkytown, every landlord tells every tenant that Dylan lived in their apartment.”

“And every coffee shop—”

“—puts a photo of Dylan next to its performance space?”

“Looks like it.”

“So, Dylan didn’t play at every coffee shop in Dinkytown.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“But did he play at any coffee shop in Dinkytown?”

“Yes, he did. At the Ten O’Clock Scholar.”

“Where is the Ten O’Clock Scholar?”

“That, unfortunately, isn’t the question to ask.”

“Well, what is the question to ask?”

“Where was the Ten O’Clock Scholar?”

“Well, where was the Ten O’Clock Scholar?”

“Only about a block from here. Do you want to see?”

“I do.”

“Isn’t it still a little early for I do?”

“Is it?”


“This is—I mean, this was—the Ten O’Clock Scholar, the coffee shop in Dinkytown where Bob Dylan played.”

“An empty parking lot?”


“Next to a closed Hollywood Video?”

“Yes. This is it, my friend.”

“You gotta a lotta nerve—”

“—To say you are my friend?”


“Well, what are you, if not my friend?”

“I don’t care about all of that.”

“About all of what?”

“I don’t care what we were to each other then—back at The Purple Onion, back at the start of this date—”

“—Or what we are to each other now?”

“Or what we are to each other now. And I don’t care that the Ten O’Clock Scholar was here then. I don’t care that Bob Dylan played here then. I do care, though, that you and I are here now—”

“—Because you want to play with me here now?”

“Exactly. And don’t just stand there, grinning.”

“The Purple Onion” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2014.

Surveying Acres One Last Time

Before the bell over the door could sound its final knell, his withered hand accepted the flashlight the clerk offered without dragging her nose away from the heady aroma of aging paper emanating from the brittle pages of the hardcover open on the countertop.

Decades of sweating palms had left the once shiny metal flashlight as cloudy and gray as the pregnant sky, whose water broke as he shuffled into fiction. Its flickering beam augmented the watery winter light filtering through the twin skylights as he followed the red arrows on the floor past the spot where they diverged from the greens. Mystery.

A head heavy with unwritten sequels dragged his body down into the question mark punctuating a sentence that the younger man captured in the dust jacket’s faded photo, despite his studied look of profundity, could never answer during their weekly face-to-face. Why didn’t anyone buy the damned thing?

He’d even autographed it, borrowed a stub of a pencil from the clerk and added his inscrutable scrawl to the flyleaf below the price handwritten by the bookstore’s founder, whose own final chapter had been written almost a decade ago.

But today’s routine inspection of the splintered crate that once held Forget-Me-Not Oranges straightened him into an exclamation point. It was gone!

Relinquishing the light at the counter, he missed the clerk’s sly smile as she noted his growing resemblance to the author on the dust jacket she had carefully tucked away before taking up the hardcover.

“Surveying Acres One Last Time” was originally published in the flash-fiction collection Book by Authors in 2006.


“Think Houdini ever reached a point where he started to escape unconsciously?” mused our bachelor brother, the only one of us to have made it out of his twenties free of lifelong commitments. This Thanksgiving, though, he was supposed to have brought the woman he had been with for almost a year. The seat next to him at our parents’ table was unexpectedly empty. So were our disappointed parents’ seats – now that they had excused themselves to play with their grandchildren. “That he just started picking locks like other people pick their teeth?”

With that, he touched index finger to canine and dislodged something dark. Suddenly, he pulled his hand out to stifle a cough. When he placed it, palm up, on the tablecloth, there was a bobby pin perched perpendicularly across his love line.

“We were relaxing in bed.” He nodded toward the chair, explaining its emptiness to his siblings. “If you had realized I was about to pull a Houdini, that this was a magic trick, you might have taken my spilling that glass of wine into the gap between the bed and the wall to be a bit of misdirection.

“Turned out, though, that it actually directed her attention toward the thing she wasn’t supposed to see. Because, when I pulled the bed away from the wall to spray stain remover on the carpet, there it was: this bobby pin.

“She touched the bobby pin with her right hand and her hair with her left hand. Then, without a word, she walked out.”

When he lifted his eyes from what he held in his hand, they looked lost. “When those shackles fell away, I didn’t feel free without their weight. I felt adrift, as if those chains had been attached to an anchor.”

“Pinned” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2015.


The way I remember it, we held hands for the first time on the double-decker.

My hand had held a deep-fried hotdish on a stick right before riding the double-decker Ferris wheel. After all, we were at the Minnesota State Fair, and what could have been more Minnesotan than that – three Swedish meatballs on a stick, with tater tots between them, all breaded and deep-fried?

“The hamburger-and-cream-of-mushroom-soup dipping sauce?” Heidi suggested as we strolled toward the midway.

“Or that the banner above the window where we ordered had ‘Uff Da!’ printed on it?” I asked.

“Twice!” she laughed. “Or that the stand was called ‘Ole and Lena’s’?”

“‘Ole and Lena’!” I exclaimed. “Like all those old jokes my Norwegian nana used to tell! Did you ever hear the one about when Ole and Lena got married? On their honeymoon, they had driven almost all the way to Minneapolis when Ole put his hand on Lena’s knee. Giggling, Lena said—”

“‘Ya can go a little farder now if ya want to, Ole,’” Heidi interjected in her best Yooper accent.

“So Ole drove to Duluth,” I finished.

The way I remember it, that was the first time we laughed together – a very new couple sharing a very old joke about a husband and a wife who almost always misunderstood one another.


The way I remember it, we compromised for the first time on the double-decker.

My hand still held half a deep-fried hotdish on a stick. As I started my standard tirade against roller coasters, I punctuated my most important points with thrusts of it.

Artificial thrills,” I sneered, “for folks who are—”

“Not afraid of heights?” Heidi interrupted.

“—bored by their lives,” I insisted. “Admittedly, I’m—”

“Afraid of heights?”

“Of course not,” I scoffed.

“So, you refuse to ride a roller coaster because—”

“—I have no need for artificial thrills because I’m not bored by my life.”

“But, because you’re – of course – not afraid of heights, you’d have no problem riding, say…,” Heidi’s eyes scanned the rides that towered over the rest of the amusements on the midway, “…the double-decker Ferris wheel?”

“Of course not,” I bluffed.

“Well, let’s get in line!” She trotted toward what looked like a rickety Erector Set. Two wheels with eight passenger gondolas each were connected by thin – too thin! – metal beams with holes in them. An axle threaded through the holes in the middles of the beams, meaning that it was not only the eight gondolas on each of the wheels that would rotate from bottom to top, but also the two wheels themselves.

As I stared at the legs dangling out of the gondolas on the higher of the two wheels, I gulped. Then I threw the remaining half of my deep-fried hotdish on a stick into the trashcan next to the head of the line.

“Not feeling a little … queasy, are you?” Heidi asked. “Our feet are still on the ground.”

The way I remember it, I managed to scrape up an appropriate pun. “It’s just that…,” I stammered as I stepped past the carny holding the gondola door open for us and scooted onto the bench beside her. “It’s just that, I want to concentrate my attentions on only one ‘hot dish’ at the moment.”

“Aww,” she said.

Just then, the carny slammed the door and pulled the lever. With a jolt, we creaked skyward.

“Ahh,” I said.


The way I remember it, I mostly stared down at my knuckles, which were white from my compulsive clutching of the safety bar. I felt like our ascent could only last a little longer; I was – yes – afraid we were about to start our descent.



“So…you’re Norwegian?” Heidi asked. “I would’ve guessed German, with a name like—”

Carl Braun? You would’ve guessed right – at least, mostly.” After a slow start, my answer began to pick up speed – as I was sure we were about to do. “My nana, my great-grandmother, was Norwegian. And her husband, my great-grandfather, was Italian. So, that makes me about one-eighth of each. But I’m about three-quarters German.”

“What does Braun mean in German?”


“Wait. Isn’t Carl the German form of—”

Charles? Yes. So—”

“So, you’re—”

Charlie Brown? Sadly, yes,” I sighed. “My great-grandfather – one of the German ones, not the Italian one – actually changed his name from Carl Braun to Charles Brown when anti-German sentiment was at its height in America around the time of the First World War. And, to differentiate himself from his father, my grandfather insisted on Charlie instead of Charles. Until, that is, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips started to appear in newspapers.”

“And your father—?”

“Got so sick of all the football and kite jokes when he was a kid that, as soon as he turned 18, he legally changed his name back to Carl Braun.”

At the moment, I felt something strange. Although, as I had dreaded, our gondola started its descent, our wheel simultaneously started its ascent. I was so disoriented that, despite my – yes – fear of heights, I was about to look up from my knuckles.

But then I saw Heidi lift her left hand off the safety bar and place it on top of my right hand.

The way I remember it, I momentarily lamented that my hand had held a deep-fried hotdish on a stick right before riding the double-decker because it was slightly greasy. But then I let go of the safety bar, so I could hold her hand.

Now, I wonder if she had misunderstood me – if my inability to hide my fear of heights had seemed to her instead to be the height of emotional openness in an Upper Midwestern man?

But, then, I was sure I did not misunderstand her when she informed me, in her best Yooper accent, “Ya can go a little farder now if ya want to, Charlie.”

“Double-Decker” was originally published by Art of This in 2015.

Give Us This Day

A sea monster’s moan rumbles the otherwise still mist that shrouds Fisherman’s Wharf – the forlorn foghorn of the former federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. It’s inside the brightly lit building before us, though, that an amorphous, immortal monster has been locked away for longer than any sentence ever served on Alcatraz.

Basically a blob born when outlaw lactobacilli and yeast strains – mutated to thrive in the fog of San Francisco – impregnated dough in a bakery more than 150 years ago, it is fed flour and water by a trained team morning after morning.

We watch through the thirty-foot-tall window walls of Boudin at the Wharf as bakers wearing white sustain the process prescribed by their French founder, Isidore Boudin, in 1849. With their hands, they combine a bit of the “mother dough” with the aforementioned flour and water, divide it into batches, and shape it into loaves. After allowing the loaves to rise in their respective proof boxes for 24 hours, the bakers ritualistically slit them with knives to create crisscross scores.

Carrie and I are perpetually lapsing and relapsing Catholics, so there seems to be some meaning in the cross cut into the round sourdough in front of us.

I attempt to put it into words: “Recipes are prayers.”

“Don’t you teach your composition students that most metaphors need explanations?” Carrie chides.

“That’s true.”


“Recipes are prayers,” I repeat. “Words written by our ancestors in an attempt to earn immortality, repeated generation after generation.…”

Here, I start to struggle, but Carrie comes to my aid. “… But it isn’t the words that are most important; it is the actions they dictate?”

I nod. Holding hands, we watch the bakers’ knives make the sign of the cross, over and over, just as Isidore Boudin did.

“Give Us This Day” was originally published by Fewer Than 500 in 2015.


Somewhere on the 62, we hit a rough patch and missed our exit.

We were driving along the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park, searching for whatever dusty trail corresponded to the red line on the official map and guide labeled “Canyon Road.” As usual, Heidi was the one behind the wheel; I, the one behind the map.

“Shit,” I said, squinting at a faded street sign receding rapidly in the rearview mirror. “That’s it.”

“Should I turn around?” Heidi asked.

“Well, that might be quicker than driving around the entire world in order to get back there again,” I snapped.

Even in retrospect, it was impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when the tone of our ceaseless exchange of wry wisecracks had shifted from playful to … what? Hurtful, maybe?

No, that wasn’t quite right. Shit. I hated not having the right words.

It was frustrating. Like all those damn wildflowers Heidi had been photographing since we had paid our ten bucks at the Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center earlier that morning.

The “rainy season” that passes for winter in Southern California had lived up to its name for once, soaking the sandy soil with more than 35 inches and giving the region’s meteorologists – vestigial relicts of some archetypal television template from “back east” – something to actually talk about on the evening news. It was from one of them, a guy who apparently saw no irony in adopting the stage surname of Rains when his job typically consisted of repeating the words “67 and sunny” over and over and over again, that we had heard about the resulting wildflower bloom in the desert.

Heidi wasn’t one to bide her time. The next morning, a Saturday, we were lurching our way along the two-lane road that winds through Joshua Tree – Heidi skidding to a unannounced stop on the gravel shoulder whenever she spied so much as a single bloom. Looking down as she fiddled with the settings of our new digital camera, she would charge headlong toward the flowering … whatever it was, oblivious to the spines protruding from the cactuses clustered around it.

“Ooh, what’s this one?” she asked, dropping into a squat next to a suspiciously lived-in-looking hole to snap a close-up of a white blossom drooping under the midday sun.

“I can’t be sure, of course, but from here it looks like a … flower,” I said.

“Right,” Heidi sighed. “But what kind of flower, Charlie?”

“A white flower.”

“Jackass.” Without standing up, she twisted her body backward to glare at me. As she turned, the rubber treads of her sneakers snapped a few flecks of gravel into the air.


“I was just asking a question, Charlie. You don’t have to be a smartass about it.”

“Well, how am I supposed to know what kind of flower it is?”

“You know everything. You’re, like, the master of useless trivia.”

“Well, I guess the names of flowering desert plants aren’t useless trivia,” I said.

“Because if they were, then you’d know them, right?”


I was a writer, a newspaper reporter by trade, so not having the right words to describe things unsettled me. I had barely developed the vocabulary for Minnesota when we moved to Southern California. Suddenly, I had had to start from scratch again: the names of neighborhoods, of trees, of freeways … of flowers.

Most frustrating of all, however, was the fact that I didn’t have the words to describe what was happening to our marriage.


Underwear, I had finally decided, it was all about the underwear.

All you needed to know about the state of a man’s relationship, I had come to believe, could be divined from the way he handled his lady’s unmentionables at the laundromat. Did the guy break out in a dopey grin as he folded those black silk panties, hold them gingerly with only the thumb and forefinger of each hand like he still couldn’t quite believe he was allowed to touch them? Or did he wad up the cream-colored thong with one hand and toss it carelessly into the hamper?

Staring at the portion of Heidi’s thong that peeked out above the waistband of her shorts as she hiked a few paces ahead of me on the rapidly ascending trail, I thought back to the other day in the laundromat, and decided that my own underwear-handling technique had been drifting inexorably closer to the latter than the former.

At the crown of the rocky ridge, Heidi and I paused for a moment to gulp lungfuls of the thinning desert air. I held out my hand. She looked at it for a moment, as if considering my wordless request, then passed me the plastic water bottle. As I tipped my head back to take a swig, Heidi shielded her eyes with a freckled hand and scanned the valley below. The improbably verdant fronds of the 49 palms from which the oasis that was our destination took its name were, for the first time, visible to the east.

“Christ,” she said. “How much farther do we need to go? I mean, you don’t seem that into it, and…. What the fuck?”

I choked on a mouthful of water.

“What? What?” I spluttered.

“Those people down there.” Heidi pointed to a group of hikers clustered around a large granite boulder several hundred feet down the other side of the ridge. “What are they doing?”

I squinted.

“Are those … sticks?” I asked, gesturing at the long, thin objects two of the people brandished.

With Heidi leading the way, we scrambled down the trail to investigate, our already-caked sneakers stirring up clouds of dust that stuck to our sweaty calves and shins. As we approached, a bearded man – who was, indeed, grasping a gnarled branch – held up his hand, palm flat out in the universal sign for stop.

“Don’t you see ’im?” The man nodded toward the rock around which he and his trio of companions had established a loose perimeter. “Big sonnuvabitch, good four feet long.”

Heidi crouched down for a better look into the shadows below the boulder, but kept her distance.

“Charlie,” she hissed, unbuttoning the back pocket of her shorts to retrieve the camera. “Look.”

The rattler – the first Heidi and I had stumbled across during our ramblings through California’s national parks – was coiled underneath that rock. As my wife scuttled around in search of the best camera angle, the rattlesnake and I engaged in a staring contest. I blinked first.

Looking up, I realized that I was only inches away from the source of the heady aroma of jasmine I had mistakenly attributed to one of the shrubs sprouting along the trail: a pair of shapely legs glistening with scented lotion. My eyes became instantly entranced by the way the taut calf muscles of the bearded man’s lady friend seemed poised on the edge of flight, shifting subtly beneath her tanned skin.

The first couple of years with Heidi, I had assiduously avoided checking out other women. Those laughing brown eyes above her freckled cheeks, the dirty blonde hair highlighted by hours in the sun – they had been more than enough for me. As things had begun to cool between us, however, I caught myself looking more and more.

Now, from the way the bearded man was glaring at me, it seemed as if he had caught me, too.

“You folks best move along,” he said. “My buddy and I here, we’re gonna try and pry that rattler out from under there. We were almost on top of ’im before we could hear the warning.

“That’s why it’s important,” he observed, using his stick to trace an idle circle in the dust that reminded me instantly of the gold wedding band I wore on my left hand, “not to stray from the path.”

I reddened involuntarily.


We continued our trek toward the 49 Palms Oasis with me in the lead, for once, as Heidi was squinting down at the LCD display on the back of the camera, trying to adjust the lighting on the shots she had taken of the rattlesnake.

Although I hadn’t been able to find the words to describe exactly what was off in our relationship, the way I felt at that exact moment was easy enough to name: protective. I could see clearly now, in a way I hadn’t prior to our encounter with the rattler, that the path in front of us was neither straight nor easy, that almost all of the rough-hewn rocks that defined its edges cast shadows large enough to conceal danger. The rest of the way to the oasis, I insisted on scouting ahead, on checking under each one before letting Heidi saunter past, certain for the first time in a long time that, no matter how far the distance between us had grown in the past few months, I could bridge it instantaneously if I needed to throw myself between her and danger.

I began tugging at my ring with the thumb and forefinger of my opposite hand, which is a nervous habit I’d developed in the years since our wedding, but it wouldn’t budge. As was often the case when hiking, the swinging of my arms had caused the blood to pool in my hands, swelling my fingers. And, suddenly, it seemed right that a wedding band wouldn’t be something that you could just pull off and on whenever you felt like it.


“I’d suck it out, you know,” I blurted.

“Suck what?” she asked. “The life? Out our marriage?”

“No,” I said, genuinely hurt. I stopped, turned to face her. She kept walking. I began to backpedal. “The poison. Out of the wound, if you were bitten by a snake.”

“Wait a minute. Suck the poison out? Aren’t you supposed to pee on me?”

“What? No! That would be if you got stung by a jellyfish. But I’d do that, too.”

“My hero.” She clasped her hands over her heart and heaved a melodramatic sigh.

“I’m just saying I would do it, is all. Whatever it would take to save us … I mean, you. To save you.”

“Smooth, Charlie.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m a writer, not a speaker.”

Heidi opened her mouth to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead her eyes widened, and she stared straight ahead.

I hadn’t heard a rattle, but I tensed my legs in preparation for a desperate dive. As my toes pivoted in the loose gravel, however, I saw that it wasn’t danger that had stopped Heidi dead in her tracks, but beauty. The 49 Palms Oasis had come into view around the last bend in the trail.


There may not have been exactly 49, but that looked about right. A slow but steady trickle of water down the face of a granite crag had, over the decades, created a series of shallow pools on the terraced shelves below. Around their edges stood thick clusters of date palms, some of which had been recently charred – maybe by a lightning strike, maybe by an illegal campfire. But they stood there still, in all their magnificent improbability, with nothing else but high-desert scrub for miles around.

Who knew how the seeds had gotten there originally? Tossed over the shoulder of some litterbug hiking along the trail; crapped out of some buzzard soaring over the mountains. It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter at all.

The first step was a doozy, about four feet straight down. I slid over the edge, then reached back up and grasped Heidi just above each hip. As I eased her to the ground, she braced her arms against the trapezius muscles to the sides of my neck, and when her brown eyes came level with my green ones, Heidi smiled at me in a way she hadn’t for weeks, maybe months.

Without speaking a word, we knelt at the edge of the nearest pool and used the surprisingly clear water to wash some of the dirt from our hands and faces.


We sat side-by-side on a flat rock, taking in the beauty of our surroundings. And, at that moment, some words came to me at last. Our love, I saw, had been like something beautiful blooming in the middle of the desert: a rare occurrence made possible only by a uncommon combination of favorable conditions in an otherwise arid environment. I wasn’t yet sure if it would wilt away in the harsh sun like that white flower or withstand a sustained fiery embrace like those palm trees. But I knew that it had been beautiful once, and might well be again one day.

“I’m glad we came this far, Charlie,” Heidi said. “I’m glad we didn’t give up before we saw this.”

“Me, too,” I said, reaching for her hand. “Me, too.”

“Oasis” was originally published by Inlandia: A Literary Journey in 2015.


Photo Hunt

It’s difficult to concentrate on little details when you’re staring at a naked woman.

That’s the operating principle of the touch-screen game bolted to the bar in front of me. Side-by-side on the screen, there are two almost-identical, semi-nude photos that Erotic Photo Hunt’s instructions insist contain five differences. But I feel like I’m fumbling, at best, my inexperienced digits desperately poking here and there, hoping to evoke some sort of a response.

Next to me, Heidi and Nathanael – our first friend here in Long Beach – lean against the bar, swilling well whiskey sours. Numbed by murky cocktails christened “Milk of Amnesia,” we had stumbled down Broadway from the somehow “World Famous” Reno Room and into—

“Wait, wait,” I slur, “what’s the name of this place, again?”

“The 36 36,” replies Nathanael, literally the resident expert on the neighborhood since he is within walking distance of his studio apartment. If he is still able to walk after last call.

“They’re missing a 24.”


“You know, 36-24-36,” I say. “As in—”

“Bust—,” Heidi interrupts, pointing out the appropriate part of her own anatomy at each of three terms, “—waist, hips.”

“Oh,” Nathanael nods, “of course.”

I try to stop staring at my girlfriend’s figure. “And, as in,” I shake my hammering head, “‘36-24-36: / ‘Something’s special ’bout her personality, / ‘Something’s special ’bout her physiology….’”

“The Violent Femmes!” Heidi shouts.

“The Violent Femmes,” I confirm. “Best band ever from Wisconsin, from Milwaukee—”

“Which is Algonquin for ‘the good land,” Nathanael unexpectedly contributes.

Wayne’s World!” Heidi shouts.

Wayne’s World,” Nathanael confirms.

“Actually,” I say, “there’s some controversy about whether it’s from the Potawatomi miniwaking or the Ojibwe ominowakiing. Both terms mean ‘gathering place by the water.’ But it’s not Algonquin.”

“It’s not Algonquin?” Nathanael looks crestfallen. “Yet another example of Alice Cooper corrupting the minds of America’s youth.”

I try not to let my gaze drift back to the half-naked women on the Erotic Photo Hunt touch screen, but there isn’t much else to see in the 36 36. Two pool tables, one jukebox, zero taps behind the bar. Bottled beer only, cash only. Older lady bartender.

In both photos on the screen, the model holds her hands over her own bare breasts. The only thing she’s wearing is a striped railroad engineer’s hat – an appropriate accessory, since she stands behind an elaborate model train landscape. On a track set up below her beltline, the train enters a tunnel.

“Don’t fixate on the breasts.”

“What?” Startled, I look up for the source of the unsolicited advice.

It isn’t Heidi or Nathanael, who are bonding about both being “children of divorce.” I pick out the word “alcoholic,” so Heidi’s probably babbling about her mother and stepfather. She tends to earnestly talk about their relationship – and how their relationship shaped her ideas about relationships – after we have sex, and I tend to absentmindedly nod. It’s difficult to concentrate on little details when you’re staring at a naked woman.

It’s the bartender, a weathered bottle blonde.

“The hair,” she suggests. “Men never notice hair. It’s at least a place to start.”

Sure enough: In one photo, the model’s hair is shorter. I touch it, and a jagged green line traces the outline of her hair, confirming I’ve found one of the five differences.

“Almost out of time,” she says.

I check the time remaining on the clock in the corner of the Erotic Photo Hunt screen. “What? There’s still—”

“Not what I meant.” Then she shouts, “Last call!”


Afterwards, as Heidi and I lie side-by-side on our bed, naked, I turn toward her.

“Your hair,” I ask, “did you do something different with it tonight?”

“I did,” she says. “Thanks for noticing. Only took you until 2 a.m.”

It’s at least a place to start.

“Photo Hunt” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2015.

In the Dark

It had been meant to fade out after exposure to daylight, the security sticker he had attached to the cardboard cover of his first reporter’s notebook as a souvenir. Although his name – printed in that trick ink by the security guard at the gate of the studio lot – had disappeared from the removable badge long ago, the former film critic had only now deciphered the meaning of those lost letters. It had been meant to be temporary, his stay in Hollywood.

Before burning all his reporter’s notebooks, he had decided to flip through them one last time. Scribbled in the dark, all those frantic notes about forgettable films had only made sense to him then – right after the screening room lights turned on. Between them, though, he had discovered scenes from his real life – carefully recorded in perfect penmanship in the spare moments before the lights went out – that only made sense to him now. Ripping pages with these scenes on them out of the spiral-bound notebooks, he attempted to piece together his story.

FADE IN: The first time we met there, I was so worried what people would say if they saw my car in that part of town, I parked a couple blocks away.  

Embarrassed by that battered Taurus, I strolled onto the studio lot, instead….

BEGIN FLASHBACK: The first time I was assigned to write a movie review by the arts-and-entertainment editor of my college newspaper, I didn’t even own that battered Taurus. Following her handwritten directions, I rode a bus to an anonymous stop in front of an abandoned motion-picture palace in downtown Minneapolis. Even though the curtain in the main auditorium of the theater had fallen for the final time, the screening room upstairs was still rented out by out-of-town distributors from time to time. I remember being buzzed in when, with the intercom next to the side door, I identified myself as a film critic for the first time. I felt like it impressed the people at the bus stop.

Outside, it was cold. Inside, there was at least a little warmth….

NARRATOR (V.O.): “They say that everyone is a critic. But that’s not true. Not everyone is a critic. That’s part of the appeal….”

END FLASHBACK: The first time we met, like our cars, our clothes were used. Amanda dressed in the thrift-shop semblance of old Hollywood style: shabby boas, evening gowns missing some sequins. My reporter’s notebooks – props, accessories meant to conjure the image of a journalist – protruded from the pockets of secondhand corduroy coats. I had hand-sewn suede patches onto the elbows myself; they were uneven.  

In the daylight, my beard was still patchy and her complexion was still blotchy.

In the dark, though, illuminated only by the light reflecting off the silver screen, the illusion was suddenly complete. There we were, a couple kids playing dress up, fumbling around in the dark….

BEGIN FLASHBACK: The first time I looked to the side instead of straight ahead at the screen was while we were watching Le Grande Illusion in an introductory film studies class in college. I remember everyone’s rapturous looks in the light reflecting off the silver screen – their necks craned upward, toward the illumination. I felt like we were sharing a communal experience, like we were worshipping at a church.

Outside, it was dark. Inside, there was at least a little light….

END FLASHBACK: The first time our eyes met, mine and Amanda’s, was my first time looking to the side during a press screening and seeing someone else also looking around at the faces instead of the film.

Soon, we were whispering witticisms like we were desperately auditioning for writing gigs on Mystery Science Theater 3000….            

CUT TO: ….Just because we shared a real love of MST3K, though, didn’t mean that we shared a real love.

She stood me up at the Razzies. I was pretty pretentious then, though, so I suppose I used the formal name – the “Golden Raspberry Awards” – when I invited her, for the first and last time, to spend time together outside a screening room. I remember the paper tickets – after all, I stared at them for a long time while waiting outside the theater for her – that appeared to have been simply printed on goldenrod paper, and probably cut apart with a couple pairs of complimentary scissors provided for customers, at a Kinko’s somewhere along Sunset Boulevard.

Outside, it was cold and dark. Inside, I had hoped to find at least a little warmth and a little light.

NARRATOR (V.O.): They say that Los Angeles only looks beautiful at night. Why else would Hollywood christen its most glamorous street “Sunset Boulevard”? In the daylight, its streetlights stand next to mismatched imitations of actual architectural styles – empty extensions of the set-building on the studio lots. In the dark, though, viewed from the height of the Hollywood Sign, all the lines of lights along its streets suddenly look meaningful….

After first cutting these scenes out of his stacks of reporter’s notebooks, then taping them together, he had realized that it was somewhat telling – how few of them there were, how little real life there had been between the illegible lines about forgotten films. Yet those scenes, he had realized, were all that were worth keeping.

Those, and the cardboard cover with the security sticker meant to fade out after exposure to daylight. “FADE OUT,” after all, are the last two words at the end of any screenplay. Typed at the end of the last scene, they indicate that the story is over.

He had decided to burn all the rest. There would be at least a little warmth and a little light from the fire, but it wouldn’t last long.

“In the Dark” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2014.

One-Way Tickets

“One-way ticket to Watts?” I asked, offering her half of a pair purchased from the machine at the Metro Blue Line station in Downtown Long Beach.

“God, that sounds like the title of a rap song,” Heidi said, gingerly taking the ticket between thumb and forefinger. “Why can’t we just drive to the Watts Towers, Charlie?”

“C’mon, babe. It’ll be an adventure, like taking le métro to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.”

“An adventure.” She eyed a woman wobbling up the ramp, who announced, “I done got myself drunk,” before slumping over the bench next to us, cushioning her fall with the dirty duffle clutched to her chest.

“See, just like Paris,” I said.


When the train pulled into the 103rd St. Station, we exited into the cloud of aromatic smoke surrounding two teens wearing white tees that hung nearly to their knees.

“Tickets?” asked the one not taking a drag at that moment.

“Sure,” I said, handing them over. The kid nodded us down the ramp.

Heidi was scandalized. “Those conductors were smoking a joint,” she hissed as we walked down the ramp toward 103rd.

“First of all, that wasn’t a joint. That was a Black & Mild,” I sighed. “Second of all, those weren’t conductors–”

“Why’d they want our tickets, then?”

“So they could re-sell them to someone else traveling north.” I placed the palm of my hand on the small of her back, steered her toward Graham Avenue. A woman rattled by in the opposite direction, pushing two toddlers in a shopping cart.

A man sat on the cracked concrete stoop of the third house we passed on our way to 107th, a tallboy wrapped in brown paper between his feet, a fatty wrapped in white paper between his lips.

“Now, that was a joint,” I informed Heidi.

The Watts Towers soared skyward like the frames of blimps whose skins had been burned away. According to the placards wired onto the black bars of the fence along the perimeter of the triangular lot, they were not lead zeppelins – but they went over about as well with Heidi.

“This is your idea of a romantic picnic spot?” she asked as I spread a blanket in the shade cast by a cluster of eucalyptus and removed a bottle of wine from my backpack. A breeze rustled the dagger-shaped leaves overhead.

“Clearly, the towers are all about love,” I replied. “Guy spent thirty-four years’ worth of nights, weekends, and holidays – basically, every second he wasn’t at work – building them. Didn’t have a plan, just made it up as he went. Didn’t have a scaffold, just climbed on what he had built before, always trying to reach new heights. Sounds like a great metaphor for love to me.”

Heidi looked unconvinced.

“Plus, look at all the hearts in the ironwork,” I added.

Heidi sighed. “I’m tired of you not having a plan, Charlie, of you just making it up as you go. I told you I wanted to spend Valentine’s Day in Paris, on the Eiffel Tower. Instead, you expect me to spend what’s supposed to be the most romantic day of the year in fucking Watts?”

Turning away from the feeling fixed into on her facial features – I didn’t quite have the word for it, but it certainly wasn’t love – my eyes caught on a piece of bottle green glass pressed into the mortar at the base of one of the towers. Clearly, it was a fragment of a 7-Up bottle, but the word “Up” was the only thing that remained legible, the letters in white against a field of red.

Grasping the wine bottle by the neck, I smashed it against the trunk of the nearest eucalyptus tree. Ignoring Heidi’s scream, I kneeled down to examine the emerald shards.

“God dammit, Charlie! What’re you doing now?”

“Trying to pick up the pieces,” I said.

Mon dieu!” shouted Heidi, who had been hopefully flipping through French flashcards for a few weeks.

“Where are you going?”

Du métro…,” came her halting reply, “d’acheter un billet … à sens unique … loin de làloin de vous.”

“What? I don’t understand you.”

“I know,” Heidi sighed as she walked away.

“One-Way Tickets” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2012.