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Flirting with the bartender at that sad bar down the street, the stubborn stench of stale beer and cigarettes, linoleum floor absent random broken patches still sticky from the revelry of the night before, on a shiftless Sunday afternoon, the universe collectively hungover, or so it seems, sequestered from the unforgiving sunlight by the sulking shadows that scatter across the pockmarked mahogany walls, day drinking whiskey by the drink to help you think before the work week begins anew tomorrow, as it always has, as it always will till you gather the nerve to quit that goddamned place, and how you’ve played and replayed that scenario over and over and over in your head, to do what you want to do, whatever that might be, with time ever fleeting. …


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It’s that thing that wakes you at three in the morning, with a gasp and a startle, brain addled, pulse pounding, the pillow and sheets sweat-soaked. You roll over to the night stand for a cigarette before you realize you don’t smoke anymore, quit years ago, but it still remains, that muscle memory, to reach for something, no matter how toxic, when you sense yourself slipping. You unfold out of bed, this leg, then that leg, pause for a beat to acclimate to upright, sort of, before stumbling down the stairs, clumsy against the rail, the hardwood creaking, that one nail on the next to last step that always snags your sock, goddammit, boxers and V-neck damp, clingy. You check the air conditioner, running full blast, set at sixty-two. Sixty-two? You jump to adjust to something more sensible, seventy at least, the unit outside clanking off with a rattle of hard metal. Christ, who set this thing at sixty-two? You would never be so cavalier with the thermostat, and thinking like that makes you feel like your father. …


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These were frightening times for the residents of Birchwood Village, with everyone ordered to shelter in place and stay six feet apart to slow the spread of this dreadful virus. For they were, by their very nature, a social lot, gathering together for numerous occasions: the Independence Day Celebration, and the Harvest Fall (or was it the Fall Harvest?) Festival, and the annual City-Wide Yard Sale, to name just a few. And how distressing that this would happen now, in early spring when everybody was already itching to get out and about after another typically harsh and dreary winter.

The dogwood and the crabapple and the sugar hackberry trees were in bloom. The traditional Friday night fish fry at the Birchwood Village Church had begun with the mouth-watering sound of sizzling oil. And preparations were well underway for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, with Old Man Williams already chosen as Grand Marshal in appreciation of him so admirably stepping in as Santa Claus at last year’s Christmas parade after Hank Walters Bryant, the ranking member of the village council and “official” Birchwood Village Santa, suffered an unfortunate, yet fortunately not fatal, golf cart accident. Indeed, this was exactly when folks sought most to congregate. But the situation was not to be taken lightly, as doctors and scientists of impressive credentials were adamantly advising. Alas there was scant recourse but to heed these warnings and partake in social distancing. …


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Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good plane?

That has always been my view on skydiving. And it has also been my view on changing careers. I mean, why would I want to jump out of a perfectly good legal career? However, as I’ve been thinking about it (and I’ve been thinking about it a lot!), I have begun to question if this really is a perfectly good career for me, if this really is a perfectly good plane.

I have practiced law, in various capacities, for (gasp) nearly twenty-five years. I started as a law clerk for a judge, then moved on as an associate in a large regional law firm (the dreaded “Big Law”), and after about ten years there, and a brief stopover with a small boutique firm, I went in-house for a corporation before ending up as an attorney in higher ed. It’s funny to me how this appears so seamless and well-considered written down when, in actuality, my career trajectory has been anything but. …


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I had to have been the only person to actually get slower at the Speed Clinic — a six-week training program sponsored by the local running shop for runners who wanted to increase their speed. But it wasn’t entirely my fault, or maybe it was. Within the first fifteen minutes of the first session I pulled my hamstring. I really pulled it. If I were a cartoon character there would have been a thought bubble springing from the back of my left leg with the words, “Bang! Bam! Ka-Pow!”

Oh, did it ever hurt. But I was not going to be the “old man” who went down at the Speed Clinic, not when the class consisted primarily of runners half my age who were zipping around the track like they were on roller blades. It was feeling like an old man that had prompted me to sign up for the Speed Clinic to begin with. My fiftieth birthday was only months away, and I thought the Speed Clinic might give me a boost to my running, and maybe even to my self-esteem, especially with the flurry of AARP literature I had been receiving in the mail slyly disguised as birthday cards. …


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Elvis in the parking lot of that sad motel in Pigeon Forge draped a pink nylon scarf over your neck and kissed you on the lips when we told him it was our anniversary, which I thought was bull shit but you motioned not to say anything, as if that old fart in the bedazzled polyester pant suit and oversize rhinestone-rimmed sunglasses and dyed black pompadour that probably wasn’t even his real hair, this dime store wig pulled out of a cellophane package, would do something, but you were always “you don’t know for some people sometimes” and you were right. All I said was “c’mon buddy, ease up there with the lips” and he flipped like a switch to enraged and deranged and tried to go all Chuck Norris on my ass, those goddamn kicks and chops and slaps, and where’d he get that knife. Crazy fuck. Who knew? You. And you were right, as usual, as we ran for our lives, not really for our lives because there was no chance in hell he would ever catch us, that old fart, platform shoes, yet white knuckles nonetheless, until we got a few blocks away, blended in among the meandering extended families with their mall walking and gargantuan dripping ice creams, cracking up and breathing heavy, hands on hips, my hands on your hips, my lips on yours, that after ten years together, ten years in all, I should have learned by now to trust you. …


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“The fire took everything,” Mama told us, as I’d never seen her, shaken when she was always the strongest in the family, had to be, with Daddy gone. We were staying at this shelter downtown, left there by the Red Cross, huddled together in a corner wrapped in scratchy blue blankets after being plucked off in the middle of the night, still in our PJs and bare feet, clutching at each other in the confusion, rescued from the raging inferno, a burst of bright oranges and yellows punctuating the bleak horizon.

Mama’s face was ashen, her eyes watery, with a frailty to her manner that frightened me, made my heart race, my stomach twist in knots. I didn’t understand what Mama meant by everything, couldn’t process the enormity of it. Everything back then to me, when I was but six, was a stuffed animal collection, mostly bears and bunnies, and the two-story dollhouse Daddy had built for me one Christmas, that one Christmas right before he went away. And my bed, of course. I loved my bed, my delicate four-poster bed with flowing pink silk canopy straight out of a fairy tale. That was everything to me. That was my world. Until it was snatched away, along with everything else, by a cigarette left burning in a full ashtray. …


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He was there, like he was always there, every morning when I came in for my coffee, black, sugar, and a muffin, apple crisp if they had it and if not banana, never bran, and just to be up and out, out of the house, after Elizabeth, several months now, give or take as I was losing track of the days, and maybe that was a good thing, but I still wasn’t who I used to be, I could tell. There he was, at the same table — and how early did he have to show up for that prime real estate at this prime time — apart from the madding crowd of nine-to-fivers and wannabe hipsters and middle managers making last minute revisions to presentations and sales pitches and groggy new parents who had been up all night with colicky babies and too cool teenagers on their way to school and hangers-on and ne’er-do-wells with nothing better to do and nowhere to go and everyone else caught up in the coordinated chaos, all clamoring for their daily fix. He was there, always at the same table, off to the side and in the middle, against the window, sequestered from the line that snaked past the counter, sometimes extending out the door, which caused a real cluster, more than usual. I was lucky if I managed to nab a rickety stool beside the railing or maybe squeeze into one of the sunken couches in the corner next to some liberal arts major hunched over a battered laptop with a peeling Fugazi sticker taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi to check e-mails, or job boards, or Craigslist. …


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Do they know what they’re lining up for, every morning, first thing, whatever the weather, always the same, as many as twenty deep, winding through the parking lot, tails wagging, tongues flapping, barking at each other, like any other day?

When do they figure it out?

When their owners, bleary-eyed and indifferent, checking cell phones, clutching leashes and travel mugs of coffee, lead them inside once their number’s called? Is it not until they step into the sterile operating room, jump onto the table, right before they go under?

As I pass the Snip Clinic on my drive to work, I clench my thighs in empathy.

* * *

(A version of this short story was originally published in 101 Words.)


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She was low in the morning, as low as anyone could be after a full night’s sleep, but maybe she didn’t sleep, maybe she was like me, tossing and turning on the flattened futon in my one-room studio upstairs, wrestling with what if and what could be and what might happen and whatnot and whatever. I didn’t know. I didn’t know her like that. I didn’t know her at all really. I only knew her from when she came in for her usual, in baggy sweats and pearls, flip-flops even in the winter with pink painted toenails, the fourth toes inexplicably turquoise, no rings on her fingers, brown hair, long and wavy and still damp from the shower, smelling like soap and lilacs. I only knew her for maybe fifteen minutes at a time, and never caught her name because we didn’t write it on the cups like that other place around the corner, we never asked. I only knew her from the stories I made up about her in my head to get me through the monotony of the rest of my day, wondering why she would be so low, someone like her, what could have happened, what could have been going on, what she might have been missing, or who, and if she would be so low with someone like me, maybe not I would think, I would daydream, I would promise her in intimate conversations we didn’t have, probably, definitely not, I would hope, until she stopped coming in, just like that, and I never saw her again. …

About

Peter J. Stavros

Writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, essays and plays in Louisville, Kentucky. www.peterjstavros.com.

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