They Never Build Them to Last

The father, the husband, the homeowner stands at the top of the front steps he will sweep before he leaves, wondering where those dozen cardboard boxes went.

There they are, stacked at the end of the straight path of carefully fit tiles that he will brush with the same broom. Having already drenched the exteriors of the cardboard boxes with leftover stucco-colored paint, the man’s son is roofing a meticulously constructed replica of his house with one last layer of toilet paper tubes cut in half – a reasonable simulacrum of its corrugated clay tiles.

This isn’t the first time he has created such a structure. Because he never builds them to last.

The last toilet paper tube laid, the man’s son mounts his bicycle. With his feet shuffling off its tiles, the boy backs his way down the whole length of the path. Without turning to acknowledge his father’s presence at the top of the steps, he starts pedaling. Seconds later, he spectacularly crashes into – and through – his house. As the cardboard construction collapses behind him, the boy stops pedaling only long enough to – at last – turn and nod at the man.

The man returns the nod.

The boy rides down the street and out of sight.

Sighing, the man walks down the path to pick through the wreckage. With his left hand, he salvages the least damaged cardboard box. With his right, he removes his cellphone from the pocket of his pleated pants. Then he taps out a text to the woman for whom he is about to leave his son, his wife, and his home.

“They Never Build Them to Last” was originally published by Postcard Shorts in 2013.

Lincoln, Lincoln

When I was a child, I thought like a child – thanks to the encyclopedia my parents purchased. Or, more exactly, thanks to the one volume of the encyclopedia they didn’t purchase.

See, next to the Bible on our bookshelf were twenty-seven of the twenty-eight volumes of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. Growing up on the farm, we were poor, but my parents were believers – believers in the power of education to improve their children’s lots in life. So, the moment the checker at the grocery store handed them a free copy of Volume 1 and a full-color flyer informing them that “the purchase of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia is an excellent investment in your children’s future,” they made up their minds to find the funds to buy the rest – one a week for the next twenty-seven weeks.

For the next twenty-two weeks, they kept that promise to themselves – and to their children. But then, somewhere early in the Ss, the grocery store suffered a mysterious shortage of Volume 23. The store, my parents said, had run out before they could purchase a copy. To make up for it, they said, the store had decided to substitute Funk & Wagnalls’ The Presidents – a collection of brief biographies of every Commander-in-Chief from George Washington to George H.W. Bush.

Because my parents had raised me to believe, as they did, that education could empower people to escape rural poverty, I read over and over the biography of Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president’s comprehensive campaign of self-education, which culminated in passing the bar exam despite never having attended college – let alone law school – inspired me to strive for academic excellence.

When I was a child, I trusted my parents implicitly, so it was only years later that I started to suspect that there had been no shortage of Volume 23. When I was a teen, I was deeply disappointed – and frustrated – to discover that volume was the one that contained all the entries related to “sex.” But, by then, my otherwise exhaustive knowledge of the lives of presidents had developed the fatal flaw that would allow me to one day be blindsided by deep disillusionment: In my mind, as on our bookshelf, presidents and sex did not go together.

***

When I became a man, I thought I had put the ways of childhood behind me. Out of loyalty to Lincoln, I had registered to vote as a Republican at the age of 18, and – a few weeks after that – enrolled at the only alma mater of a Republican president that had accepted me: Whittier College.

Presidential scandals, though, had left me feeling conflicted about both of my first two adult decisions.

The Republican Party of the late 20th century, I understood, was not the Republican Party of the mid 19th century. Then, I understood, its members had been motivated by desire to create racial equality; now, I had started to suspect, they were motivated by a desire to maintain economic inequality. But first the rumors, and then the revelations, about the sexual misconduct of Democratic presidents both past and present – I went to Whittier during the Clinton Administration – repulsed me on a visceral level. Literally: Those scandals drove me away from the Democratic Party I might otherwise have embraced.

Speaking of scandals, Whittier College – of course – is the alma mater of Richard Nixon, the only man to ever resign the presidency. But its proximity to Disneyland allowed me to worship my childhood hero on a daily basis as an enthusiastic cast member at its “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” attraction on Main Street, USA. And “attraction” was the appropriate term for it because, in a purely platonic way, I was attracted to Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln, which – with its noble face cast from an actual life mask of Lincoln and its dignified address compiled from his historic speeches – seemed a perfect representation of the president I had idealized and idolized since childhood.

Ironically, it was there, at the “Happiest Place on Earth,” that I had the unhappiest moment of my life when – more than 125 years after his assassination – I was a witness to Abraham Lincoln’s first sex scandal.

***

“There’s something wrong with President Lincoln!” shouted the mother rushing her children out of the auditorium. “He’s making obscene gestures! And dripping fluids!”

When we went to investigate, the rest of the cast members barely suppressed smiles. I, however, was utterly unable to hide the emotion evident on my face at that moment: horror. For, there, in front of a spectacular painting of the U.S. Capitol, was my animatronic Lincoln – his right hand spastically pawing at his crotch. As more and more of his hydraulic fluid dripped onto the stage, his shoulder and elbow were starting to smoke from the exertion. I sprinted to close the curtains embroidered with the Great Seal of the President of the United States.

“Well, I’ll never be able to put a penny in my pocket again,” shuddered one of my fellow cast members.

Without thinking, I punched him. There, in that shrine to presidential dignity. There, where the only passion that had pumped through my heart – until that moment – had been a religious reverence for the savior of our country. Lincoln, who had won the Civil War. Lincoln, who had reunited the house divided.

Lincoln, Lincoln.

I thought I had put the things of childhood away, but – as I inhaled the scent of Lincoln’s spilled lubricant – the childish chant of kids skipping rope consumed my mind:

Lincoln, Lincoln,

I’ve been thinkin’:

What on Earth

Have you been drinkin’?

Tastes like whiskey,

Smells like wine:

Oh, my God,

It’s turpentine!

Strangely, it was at that moment that I had my first truly adult thought: There is no perfect person. There is always something wrong with the wiring.

“Lincoln, Lincoln” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2012.

Moon Jelly

The swinging singles of a bygone era had nicknamed the beach Horny Corner, but I knew I certainly wasn’t turning anyone on as I struggled to shrug the lifejacket over my meaty upper arms.

“X-LARGE!” exclaimed the block capitals hand-lettered on the salt-stained fabric with a permanent marker. The sun had already put the lie to the manufacturer’s claims of permanence, fading the black ink into the sickly purple of severe sunburns, and now my exertions were calling the writer’s honesty into question, as well.

“Extra large, my ass,” I grumbled.

“It does look awfully big, dude,” Nathanael chuckled as he folded his own lifejacket and secured it under the bungee cords that crossed over the storage area in the stern of his kayak.

“What does?”

“Your ass.”

“Hey, just because you’ve been practically living at the gym since…,” I trailed off. I looked down, crossed my arms over my chest, and tugged the two sides of the lifejacket toward each other.

“Since what?”

“Since, well … you know.”

“Way to believe the stereotypes, dude.”

“Way to perpetuate them, dude.”

Nathanael sighed. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Do what? Wear the life jacket?”

“No. Pick a fight now so it’ll be easier on both of us when I get on that redeye tonight.”

“Why don’t you come over here and say that, cocksucker?” I challenged. I kicked a token toeful of sand in the general direction of Nathanael’s feet.

Both of us laughed.

“Seriously, man,” Nathanael said. “Why do you insist on wearing that sorry-ass lifejacket? You can swim, right?”

My eyes panned across the placid waters of Alamitos Bay before fixating on a far-off spot somewhere past the Second Street Bridge.

“It gets deep in some places out there,” I said, dragging my kayak toward the waterline.

Nathanael had already discontinued electrical service to his Belmont Shore apartment, and by the time I had retrieved him from the center of a shadowy maze of stacked cardboard boxes, all that had been left at the rental place was a pair of yellow Ocean Kayak Drifters.

“Get on the boat, yeah, Banana Boat,” I sang softly as we paddled the 13-footers past the gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats easing passengers into the Venetian vessels moored to a nearby jetty.

Nathanael lingered dockside to watch a broad-shouldered gondolier adjust the red sash around his waist before fitting his oar into a gondola’s forcola.

I cleared my throat theatrically as I passed through the gap in the buoy line and angled toward the leeward side of Naples Island. Nathanael’s eyes remained riveted to the gondolier. I cleared my throat again, louder.

“What?” Nathanael asked.

I ducked my head, pretended to concentrate on my paddle strokes. I teased my companion about becoming a born-again gym rat, but I lifted at least three times a week myself. Although I hadn’t played a down in almost ten years, I still blamed my high school football coaches for indoctrinating me into a workout routine that stressed bulk over definition.

“Curls are for the girls,” they had sneered. “But the lineman who benches can hold his own in the trenches.”

Leaning forward in the kayak’s cockpit, I exploded off the line, using long, plunging strokes to distance myself from Nathanael. As the blades emerged from the water, they sprinkled my arms with sheets of spray that would leave trails of salt on my skin. I imagined a tongue lightly tracing those wavy lines as if licking the crystals from rim of a margarita glass.

I was single at the moment, so exactly whose tongue it would have been was entirely a matter of speculation. My eyelids closed for an instant as a procession of ex-girlfriends’ faces flashed by in rapid succession. When Nathanael’s popped into the lineup, I almost dropped my paddle.

It was one of the questions I had been puzzling over since Nathanael had come out earlier that year: Even before Nathanael had admitted to himself that he was gay, had he been drawn to me as a friend because he was subconsciously attracted to me? I had never had an openly gay friend before, so I didn’t know if that’s how things worked.

In the months since Nathanael’s announcement, I had caught myself more than once replaying certain moments from our past to determine if Nathanael had ever made a pass at me. But that wasn’t the most fundamental re-evaluation I had undertaken. I knew it would have been overstating things to say that our relationship had been based on a lie, but I often wondered how well I had ever really known the guy I considered one of my closest friends if I hadn’t even realized Nathanael liked men instead of women.

I finally gave Nathanael a chance to catch up by coasting through the concrete pilings of the Second Street Bridge, its underside decorated with the graffiti spray-painted as an initiation ritual by the novices on the Cal State Long Beach crew team. The tires of luxury sedans whispered shameful secrets to the roadway above as they carried their wealthy owners toward the upscale boutiques and sidewalk cafes of Belmont Shore.

“Where are these things you want me to see?” Nathanael gasped as he pulled up behind me.

“Spinnaker Cove.”

“So, where is this Spinnaker Cove, exactly?”

“Right here.”

“Right here?” Nathanael surveyed the unremarkable expanse of water with an exaggerated swivel of his head.

“Well, left here, actually,” I corrected myself, pointing to another channel. The tide was out, exposing the rough-edged black shells of the barnacles that blanketed its concrete walls. Duffy Electric Boats, those canopied harbor cruisers, were parallel-parked along the docks with the regularity of Mercedes on Rodeo Drive.

“Watt’s Up, Dock?” Nathanael scoffed as they paddled past the first boat. “Isn’t there a limit on the number of puns in a single boat name?”

“I think the only limit is a practical one. You can only fit so many words on the stern,” I observed.

“Watt a concept,” Nathanael deadpanned. “Seriously, though. Some of these names are ridiculous.”

“Definitely. I mean, ‘Knotty Buoys’?”

“Actually, I kind of like the sound of that.”

“You would.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” I said, suddenly very interested in the amount of saltwater bubbling up from the twin self-bailing scupper holes that flanked my seat.

We paddled on in silence for a while.

“What do these Duffy Boats cost, anyway?” Nathanael finally asked.

“Start at about $120,000, I think.”

“That much? Shit,” said Nathanael, looking at the identical Mission Revival townhouses lining both sides of the channel with a newfound respect. “Where are we, anyway?”

“I told you: Spinnaker Cove.”

“Right, but where’s Spinnaker Cove? I mean, if I wanted to drive here, what streets would I take?”

I frowned. “You know, I have no idea. Maybe it’s only accessible by yacht.”

“That’s what I mean, dude. It’s hard to believe this is Long Beach, too.”

“Well, yeah. I doubt V.I.P. Records is going to open a second location down here, or anything.”

“Why not? Snoop Dogg’s always shouting out the Eastside.”

“Somehow, I don’t think Naples Island and Belmont Shore are quite the ‘Eastside’ he has in mind,” I said with a snort.

“Seriously, man. I thought I knew Long Beach.”

“I thought I knew you,” I whispered.

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘We’re here.’”

“So what am I looking for?” Nathanael asked, squinting down at the calm water filling the nautical equivalent of a cul-de-sac.

“Love, in all the wrong places?”

“Seriously,” Nathanael growled. “What am I looking for?”

“Moon jellies,” I said. I laid my paddle across my lap and peered over the starboard side of my Drifter. “There’s a huge colony of miniature jellyfish living at this dead-end.”

“And what, exactly, does a moon jelly look like?”

“It’s kind of hard to describe. Sort of like the ghost of a sand dollar – a translucent saucer with four round pouches in it.”

“Gee, sounds fascinating.”

With few shallow strokes of the right blade of his paddle, Nathanael sent his kayak into a slow spiral. “Shit! I’m surrounded,” he yelped, staring down at the wraithlike forms beginning to drift upward from the murky depths. “Goddamn, they’re creepy, like alien blobs from some B horror movie.”

It Came From Spinnaker Cove!” I rumbled with the practiced profundity of a movie trailer announcer.

“Do they sting?” Nathanael asked without taking his eyes off the moon jellies clustering around his boat.

“Nope.”

“You sure?”

“Sure,” I said. I reached forward to stroke the lavender-tinged bell of the nearest jelly.

After a bit of coaxing, Nathanael followed suit. We agreed it was surprising that something that seemed so ethereal should be so substantial to the touch.

As I attempted, without any success, to lift one of the slippery enigmas out of the water with one blunt blade, my companion looked around the little cove, a growing puzzlement evident on his face.

“How did they get here?” Nathanael asked.

“What do you mean?” I mumbled, engrossed in the deliberate delicacy required to extricate the indistinct thing from the only slightly more transparent waters around it.

“What do I mean? Look at them. They’re basically just drifting bags of gas. Can they really communicate with each other? Can they really even see each other? And if they can’t, how did they wind up together in this obscure corner of Southern California?”

I looked up at my friend. “I don’t know.”

“How about sex?”

“Excuse me?” I sputtered.

“How do they mate?” Nathanael asked. “I mean, moon jelly is a very hippie name. I bet they’re all about free love down there, all those slippery bodies sliding over each other ….”

I cleared my throat loudly. “Aren’t jellyfish one of those animals with a weird lifecycle, where they’re one thing for the first phase and something else for the second? Like, they have to start out as a polyp attached to a rock before floating free.”

“Transformation,” Nathanael said. “I can relate.”

I didn’t say anything. I was sure the appropriate response was sliding around somewhere inside me, but I just didn’t have the right tool to lift it out.

As Nathanael and I floated there in silence, I spied a pair of moon jellies drifting through the edge of my peripheral vision. I lurched toward them, and my kayak capsized.

“Charlie!” Nathanael yelled.

As my unfastened lifejacket floated to the surface, I sank below my upended boat. The salt stung my eyes. Even as I blinked them furiously, though, I saw the ethereal entity sailing toward me – amorphous, androgynous. I reached out with both hands to seize it, to hold it tight against my chest, before kicking my way back up to the surface. Just as the bubbles my nose had left behind to mark the trail threatened to become too few and too far between to follow, my head burst back into the air.

Momentarily blinded by the saltwater in my eyes, I flailed my arms in an attempt to grasp something solid. One of my wrists cracked against the hull of Nathanael’s kayak, causing me to drop the moon jelly. It landed on the bow with an audible plop.

“Take my hand,” Nathanael said, reaching forward.

“I can’t see you,” I protested. As I treaded water, my blinking eyes, like a film projector cranked at the wrong speed, created a blurred image of Nathanael. “I … I guess I haven’t really been able to see you clearly for a while now.”

Nathanael didn’t say anything. He looked down at the moon jelly, already starting to dry out in the hot sun. He leaned forward and shaded it with his hands.

As my vision finally cleared, I watched my friend cup the delicate thing in both hands and drop it back into the water. Then Nathanael wiped his right on his trunks, and offered it to me.

And, in the absence of all the distracting chatter, all I could see with my burning eyes was the concern evident on Nathanael’s face and how the outstretched hand didn’t waver.

I accepted it.

“Moon Jelly” was originally published in RipRap in 2013.

Keep on the Sunnyside

I duck into the flower shop to pick out a bouquet for her before trudging up to the plot, and the usual bout of indecision nails my feet to the floorboards worn down by the shuffling shoes of the elderly and the bereft.

Molly and I had only been going out for a couple weeks when she shared her only guideline when it came to picking out flowers: no roses and no carnations.

“Too clichéd,” she sighed, crinkling her nose at the scent of the dozen red roses. “But thank you for the gift of dead plants.”

“‘Dead plants’?” I asked.

“Well, it is kind of an odd gesture when you think about it,” Molly said. “Wouldn’t a seedling be a more appropriate emblem of budding romance?”

‘Budding romance’? The next day, I gave her a packet of gerber daisy seeds – just so she didn’t get ahead of herself.

But, wait. I’m the one getting ahead of myself now, aren’t I?

Where was I? Oh, yeah. In the Sunnyside Cemetery flower shop, trying to decide between the blue irises and the pink stargazer lilies. The first few times after … well, you know … anyhow, the first few times, I brought her calla lilies, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? I thought Molly, of all people, would appreciate the ironic intent behind the cliché.

But that got old fast.

This evening, I cut my internal debate short with a compromise. The irises and the lilies would actually look good together, I decide, grabbing a couple stems of each and carrying them up to the register. The stoop-shouldered clerk sees me most every day, but he always says the exact same thing as he wraps the flowers in green tissue paper and cinches the bouquet with a few strands of rafetta.

“I’m sure she’ll love them,” he says, in a reverent tone implying that Molly is lounging on a cloud somewhere up in heaven, gazing down.

She’s not, of course.

***

As I meander my way up the hill, looking every bit the premature widower in my rumpled black suit, I soak up the sadness of all the spouses – spice, we used to joke the plural should be, like mice is the plural of mouse – who died so many years apart, the dates that don’t match when the headstones do.

Maybe I should have seen this coming all along. Maybe I should have divined some ill omen in our mutual affinity for marble countertops, some indication that we’d both be resting our heads against smooth slabs by the age of 27.

I’m mentally cataloguing the offerings left on the graves along the path, my eyes momentarily lingering on an upended beer stein, when I trip over the low-lying wooden sign.

“All flowers are removed on Thursdays,” I read while slapping the dust from the knees of my trousers. “No exceptions.”

I count the withered bouquets piled up amongst the flakes of whitewash at the base of our mausoleum. Yep, six already.

“Good news, babe,” I call out softly, fitting my key into the padlock. “Garbage day tomorrow. I know how you hate clutter.”

“Oh, good,” Molly answers from inside. “Be a dear and carry some of these spent candles out, too, won’t you?”

***

Molly and I had moved to Long Beach for the architecture, but we couldn’t afford to live in any of the buildings we admired.

We had met in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, where we had both distinguished ourselves with an unlikely brilliance for financing expensive graduate degrees in something defiantly impractical: the “critical studies of architectural culture and technology.” Not the most cost-efficient investment either of us had ever made, certainly, but we had always been fascinated by architecture. Unfortunately, neither of us could draw so much as a straight line, so we had to settle for seats at library carrels instead of drafting tables.

We had exchanged some furtive glances from the opposite ends of lecture halls now and then, but didn’t actually meet until one of our professors assigned a paper on the Case Study House Program. Predictably, most of our classmates gravitated toward the most famous architects who had taken part in the seminal experiment that helped lay the foundations of Modernism – Eames, Koenig, Neutra – but Molly and I shared an ambition to set our papers apart by focusing on a lesser known participant, Edward A. Killingsworth.

Soon, ambition wasn’t all that we were sharing. First, it was possession of the only book in the library that analyzed Killingsworth’s six Case Study homes in any great depth; second, it was the cost of gas money to drive around the Long Beach area to visit all the private residences the then-recently deceased architect had designed in his hometown. Finally, it was a realization that there were at least a couple of volumes worth of architectural criticism and history to be written about the port city long overlooked as Los Angeles’ ugly stepsister.

“I saw it first,” Molly said as we leaned against the railing at the edge of Bluff Park, scribbling our respective notes on the Marina Tower Model Apartment – a slightly Jetsons-esque exercise in steel-and-concrete simplicity near the intersection of Ocean and Paloma.

“Saw what first?”

“Long Beach.”

“Long Beach? Hate to tell you, Molly, but this city’s more than one hundred years old. I think there are several hundred thousand people – living and dead – who could justifiably claim that they saw it first.”

“Yeah, but none of them are architectural historians, are they, Nolan?”

“Good point,” I conceded. “Tell you what, let’s play cat-tinfoil-microwave for it.”

“Cat-tinfoil-microwave?”

“It’s like paper-rock-scissors,” I said. “Cat bats around tinfoil; tinfoil blows up microwave; microwave nukes cat.”

Needless to say, results were inconclusive due to the near impossibility of actually contorting one’s fingers into a reasonable approximation of any of those three things. In the end, we agreed to share Long Beach, first professionally and later, personally, too.

After grad school, we drove to the end of the freeway, set up housekeeping in a Craftsman-style apartment courtyard, and scored day jobs to support the research for our first book. I bluffed my way into a gig covering real estate and development for the local newspaper, where I summarily appointed myself the “architecture critic” of a dwindling daily that sold for a quarter. Molly lucked into a job doing in-house PR for an architectural firm specializing in upscale urban infill – basically, transforming old brick office buildings and department stores into trendy lofts which sold for more than a half million. She wasn’t just bringing home the bacon; it was more like the whole pig.

Still, with the median home price soaring past $500,000, there was no way we could buy a house. The only advantage I gleaned from reporting on the real estate market was a thorough understanding of exactly why we couldn’t afford anything designed by the patriarchs of the lineage of great Long Beach architects we had traced back to 1905: Killingsworth, Kenneth S. Wing, W. Horace Austin.

Our only ray of hope came from an acquaintance we had struck up with Belle Shaw, a grandmotherly Realtor who specialized in homes by name architects.

“I’ll find you kids a house if it kills me,” she swore.

Two weeks later, Belle was dead. But, in a way, she was true to her word.

***

“Over my dead body,” Molly declared.

“Well, that would lend a certain legitimacy to it,” I mused.

“To what?”

“To living in a mausoleum.”

“I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation, Nolan.”

“But it’s an Austin.”

“Really?”

“Really,” I said, spreading out a sheaf of yellowed clips I had “borrowed” from my newspaper’s morgue for research purposes. “It’s right here in this article. W. Horace Austin designed exactly one mausoleum in his entire career. Look at this photo – it’s the same one we noticed during Belle’s funeral.”

“But you can’t live in a cemetery, Nolan. In fact, by definition, living in a cemetery is antithetical to its purpose.”

“Oh, c’mon, babe. Would it really be so different than what your firm does? I mean, if someone had predicted 30 years ago that, one day, people would be living in the Kress Department Store instead of shopping in it, they would have scoffed, too. ‘By definition,’ the would have said, ‘retail space is not zoned for residential use.’ Just think of this as the next frontier for urban infill.”

“But –,” Molly began.

“Wait,” I interjected. “Just hear me out.”

I took a deep breath and pushed my spectacles – owlish black-rimmed orbs modeled after Le Corbusier’s originals, not Philip Johnson’s knockoffs, thank you – further up the bridge of my nose. I had been rehearsing my sales pitch ahead for days, consciously channeling the hucksterism of all those developers and real estate agents I interview for the paper.

“Good neighborhood?” I asked. “Live next door to some of Long Beach’s oldest, most prominent families. These are the people who’ve left their names on parks and streets and subdivisions – Bixby, Heartwell, Wardlow. Ring any bells?

“Secure?” I asked. “Boy, is it. Gated and padlocked, with a stately wrought-iron fence lining the perimeter –”

“Dead bodies inside?” Molly asked, her brown eyes – magnified by their own set of black-rimmed lenses – daring me to spin that into a selling point, too.

“You’d think so, but no,” I replied with a grin.

***

The mausoleum crowns a ridge along the eastern edge of the cemetery, separated from the traffic on Orange by the black bars of that stately wrought-iron fence. Four concrete steps lead up to a padlocked gate flanked by tapered round columns. Behind the ornate façade, a lower, rectangular section extends back about ten feet.

“It’s awfully small,” Molly said.

“We’ll expand,” I promised with an expansive wave of my hands.

“In which direction?”

“Why, down, of course,” I said. “I’ve already talked to a grave digger who’s willing to work as a subcontractor.”

Molly looked vaguely horrified, but nodded at the logic of it. Of course. Down. Where else?

“What about interior lighting?” she asked. “It’s not as if there’re electric lines running into . . . it.”

“We can use votive candles,” I suggested. “They sell them in the gift shop next to the front gate, and it would lend an appropriate ambience to the décor.”

Molly swallowed hard, nodded again. But then she started shaking her head instead.

“But, Nolan –,” she began.

“It’s all we can afford, babe,” I said. “The only reason somebody else hasn’t snapped it up already is because no one realizes it’s on the market yet. I only knew about it because I happened to notice that news brief buried on A14.”

“Right, right. What happened to the bodies, again?”

“On her deathbed, the last heir to the family fortune offered to donate twenty acres for a new park in one of the most densely populated areas of the city, on the condition that it include a memorial to her forbears’ contributions to Long Beach. She and all her ancestors are going to be interred there.”

“Didn’t they have a park named after them already?”

“Yeah, but the new one’s in a better part of town. Guess the old dowager figured that would be a more fitting legacy.”

“Oh, Nolan,” Molly said, slumping against a neighboring headstone with an air of something resembling exhaustion. “I don’t know about this.”

“Just think of it as a starter home,” I said. “When the neighborhood takes off, we’ll use our equity to move up to a loft downtown.”

We made an offer that afternoon.

***

I duck through the doorway and hand the irises and stargazers to Molly. What would have once been a romantic gesture is gradually becoming an exchange imbued with an offhandedness born of routine. A bouquet is nothing more than cover now, a beard diverting suspicion from my nightly visits to the cemetery.

Before I can inch far enough inside to straighten up to my full height, Molly barks, “Sit down, Nolan, you’re destroying the scale!”

I chuckle. It’s a joke that only a fellow architectural scholar would get. Frank Lloyd Wright – all five feet, eight and one-half inches of him – insisted on using his own average stature as human scale in all of his projects, resulting in some notoriously low ceilings. As legend has it, one of his students, Wes Peters, was six foot four, exactly the same height as all the ceilings at Taliesin. After watching Peters dust the ceiling with his mop day after day, Wright finally bellowed, “Sit down, Wes, you’re destroying the scale!”

Anyhow, where was I? Oh, yeah. In the doorway of “Mausoleum Sweet Mausoleum,” as the tongue-in-cheek needlepoint on the wall reads.

“How was work?” Molly asks. I can see that she’s been experimenting, trying to find a configuration of lit candles that’ll produce an even heating of our cozy little crypt, and she turns back to what she was doing.

“Good,” I say. “I’m almost done with all the reporting for my expose on how it’s cheaper – by the square foot – to be dead in Long Beach than to be alive.”

“Still resisting the temptation to write it in the first person?”

“Barely.”

“So, how did your interview with Gehry go?”

Gehry is Molly’s boss. His parents named him John, but he legally changed his first name in the midst of an undergraduate infatuation with the work of Frank Gehry. That’s all well and good, but the day he changes his name to “Gropius” is the day I force my shapely soul mate to quit her job.

“It went well, I think,” I say. “I asked him if he’d ever heard another developer suggest switching from lots to plots.”

“And?”

“Same answer as everyone else: it’s never come up. But it did lead to an interesting tangent.”

“Oh?”

“He asked me if I want to be buried after I die.”

Molly stops futzing with the candles and sits down beside me on one of the marble slabs.

“And what did you say?” she asks.

“That I want to you to cremate me and mix my ashes into the cement foundation of a stunning structure designed by some promising up-and-comer,” I say. “You know I think that burial is a scandalous waste of space in an urban area as crowded as this.”

Molly lifts her bare feet off the floor and points her toes. They graze the opposite wall of the mausoleum.

“Really?” she asks. “Right now, I wish it took up a little more space.”

***

I’m padlocking the gate of the mausoleum behind me as I leave for work the next morning, when the perfect headline for my article pops into my head with a click every bit as audible as the one produced by the rusted tumblers inside the old lock grinding into place.

“Is the Dream of Homeownership Dead in Southern California?” I whisper.

Squinting into the sunlight sneaking over the top of Signal Hill, I nevertheless spy Gehry standing near the front gate of the cemetery, sweeping over the rolling green hills with an appraising eye.

Not quite yet, I decide.

But soon.

“Keep on the Sunnyside” was originally published in The Southlander in 2006.

 

Guayabas

El olor de la mujer al igual que el de la guayaba no se puede ocultar.

HERS

“You parked under the wrong tree, cabrón!” Shouldering a bag bulging with her hastily packed possessions, she stomped past his convertible. The rash of reddish splotches on its hood was as incriminating as any sexually transmitted disease, but at least their entire neighborhood would not have been able to see that. To smell that. “Only one woman in this town has un árbol de guayaba!”

In spite of herself, she sighed. She had thought this was special.

HIS

His wife was right: Only one woman in that town had un árbol de guayaba. Soft to the touch, ripe to the point of bursting – the sweet scent of his mistress, of the fruit from the tree outside her house floated from the hood of his convertible to his nostrils as he cruised down her street. At that moment, it seemed the most powerful aphrodisiac he had ever experienced. But then, he saw the rash of reddish splotches on the hood of the car driving down the opposite side of the street. In that instant, the scent threatened to turn his stomach.

In spite of himself, he sighed. He had thought this was special.

 

ELLA

“Te estacionaste debajo del árbol equivocado, ¡cabrón!” Sobre sus hombros llevaba una abultada bolsa con sus pertenencias empacadas. Precipitadamente, a grandes pisoteadas, dejaba atrás el carro descapotable de él. La erupción de manchas rojizas en su capota se incrimina como si fuera una enfermedad de transmisión sexual, pero por lo menos sus vecinos no habían sido capaces de notarlo. Para oler eso. “¡Hay sólo una mujer en esta suburbio que tiene un árbol de guayaba!”

A pesar de sí misma, suspiró. Le había pasado por la mente que esto era algo especial.

ÉL

Su esposa está en lo cierto: Solamente una mujer en ese pueblo tenía un árbol de guayaba. Suave al tacto, madura hasta el punto de explotar la fruta del árbol que está al frente de su casa – el aroma dulce de su amante, que flotaba desde la capota de su descapotable hasta los bulbos olfatorios de su nariz en tanto él conducía por la calle de ella. Hasta ese momento, parecía que era el afrodisíaco más poderoso que en la vida había experimentado. Pero entonces, vio la erupción de manchas rojizas en la capota del coche que conducía por el lado opuesto de la calle. En ese instante el aroma amenazaba con revolverle el estómago.

A pesar de sí mismo, suspiró. Le había pasado por la mente que esto era algo especial.

“Guayabas” was originally published in the Rio Grande Review in 2013.

Divine

As prophesied, the gods returned to judge the humans. As mistranslated and misinterpreted as humanity’s myths had been through the millennia, they had accurately recorded a handful of details. There were twelve of them – six males and six females. And they were titans – colossuses with white marble bodies aglow with the gold ichor that coursed through their arteries and veins. And, oh, the humans were impressed by the gods. But were the gods impressed by the humans?

The most titanic colossus – Zeus, perhaps? – thundered to the throngs, “Humans, show us what you have done with the time we have given you here on Earth. What have you created, what have you made, that is divine – that is worthy of the gods?”

After a hurried discussion, the humans sent forward two representatives from the crowd cowering at the feet of the gods – the greatest of their artists and the greatest of their scientists.

“We,” the artist started, with a lot of confidence, “have created divine works of art, literature, and philosophy!”

The most handsome of the male gods – Apollo, perhaps? – stretched out his hand to accept the masterpieces presented by the artist. He skimmed a couple lines of an epic poem. Yawned. “Semi-divine,” he pronounced, unimpressed.

“Well, we,” the scientist stammered, with a little less confidence, “have made divine advances in science, engineering, and technology!”

The least handsome of the male gods – Hephaestus, perhaps? – stretched out his hand to accept the masterpieces presented by the humans. He swiped the screen of a smart phone a couple times. Shrugged. “Semi-divine,” he pronounced, unimpressed.

“Well, we,” both the humans stuttered, with a lot less confidence, “well, we—”

“Um,” a baker called out from the crowd, “I made these macarons. I have twelve flavors, and there are twelve of you, so I just thought—”

The loveliest of the female gods – Aphrodite, perhaps? – stretched out her hand to accept a macaron from the white cardboard box presented by the baker.

He was momentarily stunned into silence by her beauty, but then recovered enough of his senses to select a delicate pink pastry. “The secret ingredients are rose petals,” the baker blushed bashfully, “and love.”

The loveliest of the female gods took a couple nibbles from the ruffled circumference of the macaron. “Divine,” she pronounced, impressed. “Ambrosia!”

The rest of the gods, all eleven of them, stretched out their hands to accept the rainbow of macarons – raspberry, orange, lemon, pistachio, blueberry, lavender, grape, chocolate, caramel, honey, and vanilla – nestled in the baker’s cardboard box.

“Ambrosia!” agreed the rest of the gods, impressed. “Divine!”

“Humans,” thundered the most titanic colossus, combing crumbs of blueberry macaron out of his beard, “you have fulfilled the purpose for which you were created!”

“That was it?” the artist and the scientist asked in disbelief.

“That was it.”

“Just the macarons?”

“Just the macarons,” the most titanic colossus said. “We could never get them this small; our hands are too big.”

He turned to the baker. “Let us set up a standing order. You are to leave a gross of these on our altar every week—”

“Shall I,” the baker asked, “burn the offerings?”

“No, no,” the most titanic colossus said. “You are to bake them. For you to burn them would displease us.”

“But we,” protested the artist, “we created symbolic languages—”

“That was so you could write down the recipes for the macarons.”

“But we,” protested the scientist, “we made flying machines—”

“That was so you could deliver the ingredients for the macarons while they were still at their freshest.”

“Actually,” the baker interjected, “these macarons are made with only locally grown ingredients.”

“Oh,” the most titanic colossus said, standing up to depart. The rest of the gods, all eleven of them, followed his lead. “Then the flying machines weren’t necessary, after all.”

With that, the gods left.

“Divine” was originally published in 2015 in the United Kingdom by Litro Magazine.

Fair

Solemnly, the seven little lawyers looked down at her. Even comatose in her hospital bed, she was so beautiful—her skin, white as snow; her lips, red as blood; her hair, black as ebony.

“Who are we meeting with,” the first little lawyer whispered, “the girl’s mother?”

“Her stepmother,” the second little lawyer whispered.

“Apparently,” the third little lawyer whispered, “the girl’s mother died during childbirth—”

In one of those perfectly formatted fairy tales ancient Europeans created back in the old countries to teach their children lessons, the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh little lawyers would have each had the time to add a detail. But modern Americans, such as this stepmother, weren’t that patient. So she disrupted the carefully crafted scene by bursting through the door.

“Such little lawyers,” the stepmother sneered, “for such a big pharmaceutical comp—”

“We are not here today to talk about our short statures,” the first little lawyer interrupted. “We are here today to talk about what is fair.”

“What is fair is my stepdaughter’s skin, thanks to your company’s prod—”

“Our product’s responsibility for your stepdaughter’s current condition,” the second little lawyer interrupted, “is far from proven at this point.”

“These sorts of side effects are announced at the end of your company’s commercials,” the stepmother responded. “We watched them toget—”

“So you are admitting,” the third little lawyer interrupted, “that you and your stepdaughter were aware of the fact that our company’s product could – in rare cases – cause a coma?”

Aware of? Not only was she aware of these sorts of side effects, she was scared of them. ‘This product can cause a coma!’ she shouted. ‘But your skin!” I shouted.”

Excited at the prospect of finally contributing to the conversation, the fourth little lawyer was about to interrupt the stepmother, too. But then the first little lawyer yanked him – and their five fellow little lawyers – into a hushed huddle, instead. As soon as their muted murmurs stopped, the first little lawyer took the lead again – much to the chagrin of the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.

“Well, we do not see how you have a case here. You freely admit that you and your stepdaughter were aware that these sorts of side effects—”

But, this time, it was the stepmother’s turn to interrupt. “A case? But I am not here today because I want to sue.”

“Then why are you here today?”

“To work out an endorsement deal. I mean, look at her skin: white as snow.”

No longer so solemn, the seven little lawyers looked down at her. Even comatose in her hospital bed, she was so beautiful.

The first little lawyer yanked his six fellow little lawyers into a second hushed huddle. As soon as their muted murmurs stopped, the first little lawyer wrote a number on a piece of paper.

“Do you consider this,” he handed it to the stepmother, “a fair offer?”

The stepmother smiled. “The fairest of them all,” she said.

“Fair” was originally published by Every Day Fiction in 2014.

 

Lite-A-Line

The tokens – metallic coins – clattered across the cabinet tops, rang against the glass. The employee pacing circles in the pit between the two rows of sixteen machines collected them wordlessly, yet with a purposeful snap of her wrist that took each token from the corner over to the center of its cabinet – through the fields of vision of those otherwise mesmerized by the shiny silver balls bouncing between the bumpers on their respective Lite-A-Line playfields.

“Now, I want to get it into a hole, but there’s no humping here,” I explained.

“Excuse me?” my date exclaimed. “I admit this is a low-cut top, but that doesn’t mean I have even the slightest interest in ‘humping’ you in – what, the bathroom of? – a pinball parlor!”

“In a pinball parlor, to ‘hump’ is to gently nudge with the hips—”

“How is that different than the definition of ‘hump’ outside a pinball parlor?”

“The ‘gently’?” I deadpanned.

She started to stand up.

“Not again,” I groaned.

“Again?”

“I have the worst luck with first dates here. It’s always the same. I just start trying to explain the rules of the game—”

“The rules of the game? You mean Lite-A-Line? What does that have to do with you ‘gently nudging’ me with your hips?”

“You mean, you honestly thought—? I meant ‘to gently nudge the pinball machine with the hips,’” I clarified, “to try to direct the ball toward a hole.”

“Oh, I honestly thought—”

Both of us began to laugh about the misunderstanding. She sat down next to me again.

“So,” she asked, “how do we win at Lite-A-Line, if there’s no humping here?”

“Honestly, I’ve never won,” I admitted. “I mean, it seems simple: You pull this spring-loaded plunger, which shoots this silver ball up to the top of the playfield. Then these ten rubber bumpers rebound it toward one of the five color-coded scoring areas – green, yellow, red, white, or orange – each of which has five numbered holes.”

I pointed to our respective scoreboards in the pit. “When you get the ball into a hole, the corresponding circle lights up. Basically, it’s a combination of pinball and bingo. To win, you need to ‘Lite-A-Line’ of five circles – either a vertical line, which would be five of the same color, or a horizontal line, which would be five of the same number.”

“Or a diagonal line?” she asked.

“Or a diagonal line,” I answered.

“But there’s no humping…,” she smiled, “I mean, no ‘nudging’ the machine?”

“No nudging with the hips. Or with the hands,” I added. “This is actually a family-friendly first-date destination.”

“I appreciate that,” she said. “But there’re no flippers, either? So, all you can control is how you pull the—”

“—the ‘plunger’? Right,” I confirmed. “Allow me to demonstrate.”

I pulled the plunger as far from the bottom right of the cabinet as its spring would allow. The ball’s parabolic trajectory rocketed it into the bumper at the top left, and – maddeningly – it ricocheted right back to the tip of the plunger.

“Allow me to demonstrate, that is, how not to pull the plunger,” I sighed.

“You’re trying too hard.” She laughed a little, then slipped her left hand onto my right thigh. “Relax a little.”

At first, though, I felt uncomfortably constrained. If I didn’t want to elbow her arm, I couldn’t pull the plunger as far as I had ever other time I’d had an – admittedly unsuccessful – first date at Lite-A-Line. But then, as soon as I stopped trying too hard, the ball started to roll into the holes. And I wondered whether the “gently” was, indeed, the difference.

Maybe that was the lesson still left to be learned from this mechanical arcade amusement in this digital age. The black letters on the white sign outside insisted that Lite-A-Line is “a game of skill,” but I had always assumed that was simply a legal loophole – that its proprietors’ denial of the fact that it was, instead, “a game of chance” or “of luck” was all that allowed them to operate outside an actual casino.

But the outcomes of all those games of Lite-A-Line – and all those first dates – had seemed, to my mind, to be a matter of “luck” only because I’d never before been able to understand the significance of the moves involved.

Putting her hand on my thigh, though, that was significant. That was meaningful.

That was the difference between winning and losing – a gentle touch.

“Lite-A-Line” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2014.

Cyclone Racer

Before he shoots them, he commands the man and the woman to put their hands in the air.

The couple complies. Playing along, they also throw wide their lids and lips – producing silent simulations of screams.

Then his shutter snaps, capturing a picture of the two of them sitting in the last Cyclone Racer car. Posted online later that night, it’ll look like a thrilling ride.

Truthfully, though, there is no need for the restraining bar the photographer snapped into place against their laps; the historic coaster car is secured to the floor of the informal museum of amusements in the entry to Looff’s Lite-A-Line.

There’s no one in line behind them, so the couple lingers in the black leather seat.

The woman lets her fingers slide along the red-painted panel on the front of the car, labeled 2B with a single golden number and a single golden letter. “So, this was an actual car on the Cyclone Racer?” she asks. “What did the rest of it look like? All I’ve ever seen is the old logo on those commemorative t-shirts that those hipsters wear….”

“Those hipsters,” the man snorts, “weren’t even born when the city tore down the Cyclone Racer in 1968. All they’ve ever seen are black-and-white photos. The background that those slanted letters were painted on, though, was green – and so were the faces of the riders after rattling out over the blue waves of the Pacific on that wooden dual-track racing coaster.

“Their knuckles were white enough, though. A lot of handholding on the Cyclone Racer. Great for first dates….”

With that, the man finally falls silent. He looks at the hand of the woman next to him.

Although, as individuals, the man and the woman are old, as a couple, they are young. This is, in fact, their first date.

In this instant, the man is wondering whether there will be a second date. Earlier in life, dating those first few women had felt like the Cyclone Racer – a thrilling ride so intense that you had to hold hands. After all, there were powerful forces that threatened to pull couples apart. He is wondering whether this last car, this singular relic, is similarly symbolic of dating later in life – merely a reminder what was there years earlier. No momentum, just two polite people sitting silently next to one another?

But then the woman holds his hand.

“Cyclone Racer” was originally published by the Portland Review in 2013 as a winner of its “Flash Fiction Friday” contest.

That Isn’t My Cup of Coffee

My father’s coffee was served in a clay mug. Slightly misshapen, it was made by a child in an elementary school’s art classroom. Even in the kitchen cupboard of that rural farmhouse, there wasn’t one exactly like it. No one needed to write his name on its side because he was the only one there who wanted a cup of coffee before he went to work.

Then, my father wouldn’t need the fingers on more than one hand to count his choices: black, with cream, with sugar, or with cream and sugar.

My father had less choices than me, but his coffee was brewed by a wife wearing an apron she sewed – a pattern she picked. She didn’t try to call him by name to create a sense of familiarity. They were beyond that. And that one woman – who was the only one – would always sit down at the table to talk with him as he drank his cup of coffee.

And that was the way he wanted it.

But that isn’t my cup of coffee.

My coffee is served in a paper cup. Perfectly formed, it was made by a machine in an international corporation’s paper mill. Even in the storage room of this city coffeehouse, there are thousands exactly like it. Someone needs to write my name on its side because I am not the only one here who wants a cup of coffee before I go to work.

Now, I would need the fingers on thousands of hands to count my choices: regular, decaf, or half-caf; black; with cream, with nonfat milk, with 2% milk, with whole milk, with soymilk; with sugar, with Sugar in the Raw, with stevia, with Stevia in the Raw, with Equal, with Sweet ’n Low, with Splenda, with honey, with agave nectar, with corn syrup….

I have more choices than my father, but my coffee is brewed by a barista wearing an apron she was issued – a pattern the company picked. She tries to call me by name to create a sense of familiarity. We will never be beyond that. And this one woman – who is only one in a long line of interchangeable baristas who will never really remember my name – will never sit down at the table to talk with me as I drink my cup of coffee.

And this isn’t the way I want it.

“That Isn’t My Cup of Coffee” was originally published by Literary Orphans in 2014.