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—’?”

“‘—hair’?”

“‘—hey—’?”

“‘—hey—’?”

“‘—hey’?”

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

“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.

Monument Valley

Monument_Valley_10.jpg

“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—”

“Thanks.”

“—And one with vanilla for the gentleman.”

“Thanks.”

“So….”

“So….”

“So….steamers?”

“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….”

“Um…. So….”

“So….”

“So… you don’t drink coffee, either?”

“No.”

“So—”

“Let’s not start that again.”

“No, no—”

“Hey, that’s my line.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“That wasn’t this Purple Onion.”

“No?”

“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.”

“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….”

“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—”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Next to a closed Hollywood Video?”

“Yes. This is it, my friend.”

“You gotta a lotta nerve—”

“—To say you are my friend?”

“Exactly.”

“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.