Toons and Little Worm

Toons and Little Worm

The way the story was passed down to me, when I was born I weighed four pounds seven ounces and was addicted to heroin. My mother gave birth in a crackhouse on Bedford, but it wasn’t clear if she went into labor while shooting up or if she just crawled into the first place she could find once her water broke. A junkie ran out and got a cop, and the fiends and chickenheads all cleared out while the ambulance crew tried to muscle in past them. I was in intensive care for the next year. My father visited once. On that day, in the hallway outside my room, he and my mother got into a screaming match that ended with her nearly clawing out his eye with a long fingernail. He said she was lucky he hadn’t brought his gun. Sometime later, a few days or maybe a few weeks, he was arrested for possession of crack and sent upstate for two years. During that time my mother lived with her mother in a walkup on Gates Avenue. My mother claimed to be a model and my grandmother described herself as a beautician. Neither one ever worked as far as anybody could tell, as models or hairdressers or anything. For a few of those years a man named Edwin lived with them. He was killed on Flatbush in a hail of bullets that made the front page of the New York Times.

When I was eighteen months old I weighed eleven pounds, and when I was two years old I weighed fifteen. By the time I was three my weight had crept up to twenty pounds, but only barely. My mother probably only weighed ninety pounds herself, and my grandmother maybe slightly less. It was hard to tell which was older; they both looked like old trees twisted by hard wind and rain. Of the two I was more afraid of my grandmother, whose face and body were gruesome with rage and hate. My mother wasn’t much different, but at times she could laugh like a little girl and show a hint of the beautiful woman she might have been in a different life. At least once before I was three my mother tried to sell me for drug money. The police said it got her about seventy-five dollars. Child Services took me back to my grandmother; my mother rejoined us soon after.

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Jesus Hidalgo

Jesus Hidalgo

The 341st slammed into Cosala about an hour before daybreak. I was in that first wave, ma’am, the one that took the forward batteries. Resistance was heavier than we expected but it was really only a matter of having patience and applying steady pressure on our part to crack the city open. By the end of the week major fighting was finished, and we set out on regular patrols to pacify the city, maintain order, and win hearts and minds.

I was in Bravo Company and at first we were given the commercial quarter to patrol. It wasn’t bad. The streets were really narrow and the buildings created steep canyons with limited sightlines. Any one of those thousands of windows could be home to a sniper and the first time I went out I’m sure I looked like I was about to throw up or wet myself. I definitely felt that way, ma’am. I’m from a little town, you see, so those city blocks were smaller than I think any house I’d lived in, and each one was filled with more people than my whole town.

But the commercial quarter was good. I got used to it. The people, you know, they just wanted to get back to their lives. It didn’t matter to them who was sitting in the government house: a local, an occupier, a horse, whatever, they had kids to feed, things to sell, lives to live, right? We kept the streets open and kept looters out, and they appreciated us. Me and some of the guys tried to speak to them in Spanish, and I think that helped a lot, too. I tried to pal around with Gooty–that’s Corporal Gutierrez, we called him Gooty–cause he spoke Spanish from growing up. A different Spanish from theirs, so sometimes they laughed at him, too, for getting things wrong. But little things like that, we made friends.

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The Minotaur

The Minotaur

In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinatown was entirely contained within twenty-four airless square blocks of South Square bounded on the east and west by Hidalgo and Harrison Streets, and north and south by Davidson Street and Washington Square South. In all four directions Chinatown stopped at the curb’s edge, so that the thoroughfares themselves remained wholly American, and for cars passing through or pedestrians on the far side of the street the buildings fronting the Chinese side were as impenetrable as medieval castle walls, and the asphalt as effective as any moat. To casual observers, the perfectly gridded streets that passed through Chinatown were almost invisible, hidden behind the lights and streamers and signs and commotion of that wall.

Racist zoning practices coupled with the immigrant instinct to huddle for safety conspired to quickly overcrowd the neighborhood, and so the buildings of Chinatown grew taller, and the apartments inside them were subdivided with an intensity that violated all of the city’s tenement laws but went unnoticed by city officials and unreported by Chinatown’s citizens.

This city-within-a-city was an amalgam of early industrial America and the waning Chinese empire that would later serve as a source of intoxicating nostalgia but which at the time was considered both a mystery and a nuisance. It was accepted as fact by children outside of Chinatown that the Chinese had even moved into the sewers and built small cave-like apartments just above and around the effluence. (In truth, many of Chinatown’s manhole covers were missing, but this was more the result of municipal neglect than anything else–the value of scrap metal in those days was such that manhole covers were stolen all over the city, even in the more genteel parts, but the city was quick to replace them.)

Within this community people lived and grew and married and died, and dramas large and small were seeded, flowered, and withered. The stories rarely if ever attracted notice beyond the imaginary boundaries of Chinatown, but with those twenty-four blocks the stories were common knowledge, the names and dates passed around like precious heirlooms, and the repercussions studied with exquisite scholarship.

Helen Fan was born in a fourth-floor apartment on Belgrano Street in 1894. She attended Public School 18 on Moreno Street, which still stands as Dr. Sun Yat Sen Elementary School; and the adjacent High School 9, which was torn down in the 1960s. Her parents worked at a shop on Belgrano Street, and she married a butcher from Santander Street and they moved into an apartment next door. This was the extent of her world, entirely contained in within a five minute walk.

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Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo arrived in Cartagena after a journey across the sea that most men would have recalled as the adventure of a lifetime. Bartolomeo put it out of mind almost the moment he stepped on dry land, so that years later the entire chapter was covered thusly: “We sailed from Almeria on a Sunday and arrived in Cartagena before the start of Lent.”

The fortress city of Cartagena overflowed with the fabled riches of the New World. Gold dangled from every earlobe and around every neck. Even the rudest citizens seemed weighted down with jewels. The city’s taverns filled the night air with the sound of men spending fortunes on fleeting pleasure, and the churches glistened with the generosity of their shame.

Bartolomeo had been warned not to be seduced by the city. “What you see there is barely a taste of what lies at El Dorado.” In Cordoba he had met a man with an incredible tale, a man who had been captured by Indians and taken to their capital deep in the jungle. It was a city made entirely of gold, from the dizzying heights of its ziggurats to the earth beneath their feet. The man claimed to have lived there for years, to have married a pagan and sired four children before he became homesick and asked to returned to the white men on the coast. He returned to Spain, but along the way became overcome with regret. Now he was too old to return, and begged for help retrieving his lost family. “I wish for them to be brought her, to become Christians and live in the glory of His salvation.” In exchange he offered directions to the golden city.

Bartolomeo heard his tale and dismissed him at first, but the man’s sincerity touched him, and Bartolomeo took a little time to investigate his circumstances. Much of his story could be corroborated, and interviews with others who had gone to the New World convinced Bartolomeo that the old man’s claim were worth investigating. He offered to find the man’s pagan children, and the man gave him a detailed account of how to find the city of gold.

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Theodore Lewiston served two tours in Afghanistan, where he was awarded a Commendation Medal but more more importantly earned the respect and gratitude of his unit for fearlessly engaging camel spiders.

Returning home, Theodore found work as a security guard that from time to time required him to be big and scary, sometimes towards people who were bigger or scarier than he. Just as with the camel spiders, he showed a cool exterior while adrenaline surged through his veins, his not-insignificant fear hidden behind a cool gaze and steady voice.

Nobody ever asked him but he liked to imagine someone–a grandchild, perhaps–looking at his various citations and asking him about courage. What was the hardest thing you ever did? Or, “What was the most courageous?” Nobody would ever ask it that. “What was the scariest thing you ever did?”

He had a ready answer, one that would seem characteristically calm and cool but would reveal itself in time to be profound true, he thought.

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The Merciful Death of Antonette Charles

The Merciful Death of Antonette Charles

The Blue Line was one of only two things known to connect Thurman University with Kannady Chicken on North Third Street. The line’s University stop had an entrance directly at the front gates of the university. The stairwell was actually integrated into the design of the marble gates, from which attractive wings stretched out to surround and perhaps partly conceal the stairs. Most students actually used the back entrance to the subway, which spilled out in front of the larger but less attractive west gate and closer to College Hill’s commercial strip, but the main gate was symbolic of the university as a whole.

The Kellerman Avenue stop (which was actually on Ann Street, one block west of Kellerman) had a single entrance, which was in front of Kannady Chicken. Generally speaking, the less said of Kannady Chicken the better. Not so much a neighborhood institution as it was merely a thing that inexplicably existed in a neighborhood that itself only barely existed, Kannady served up edible fried foods, mostly but not exclusively chicken-based. The business depended on the fact that sometimes people came out of the subway hungry, and since the food at Kannady wasn’t any worse than anything else in this part of town it was just as good a choice as any. But make no mistake, nobody ever in the business’s history made a special trip to go to Kannady. It was just there, and so people went. Often enough that it stayed in business.

The other thing that connected Thurman University and Kannady Chicken is that Antonette Charles was a sophomore at Thurman, studying anthropology, and lived with her mother in the apartment two stories above Kannady. (Not, blessedly, the apartment directly above–everything she owned would smell like poorly-fried chicken if she had. She knew this for a fact because her neighbors, who invariably broke their leases every few months and were replaced, always sooner or later smelled like chicken.)

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The Wishing Stone

The Wishing Stone

“Would you like your table now or would you like to wait for your party at the bar?”

Lisa started to ask for the table, but then crinkled her nose and pointed to an empty stool. “I better wait at the bar.”

And wait she did. Wait and wait. First with a wine, then with a second, and after that she let herself graduate to a cocktail. The first in order to have something to do with her hands, the second to give him a little more time, and the third because even though she didn’t even want him to come it still hurt that he didn’t.

And then he came.

“Sweetie, I’m so sorry.” He used his sad voice, the one with a little whine and a choked little tear. “Were you waiting long? Of course you we were waiting long, what am I saying? I’m sorry. Are you in a hurry, can we still do this?”

She sighed. “Sure.” Lisa motioned to the bartender and reached for her purse.

“Oh no, let me.” She didn’t protest, and in a fraction of a second decided against making a comment or even a face. He was already in the hole, and would probably dig himself further in before the evening was over; she didn’t need to pile on. At least not at first.

The maitre d’ showed them to a table for two by the window. Lisa sat where she could see the front door. It gave her the option of planning out escape routes if she needed them.

“Hi, my name is Derrick, and I’ll be your server today. Here are your menus, take your time. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Hi, Derrick. I’m Tom. This is my daughter Lisa.” His charming voice. Tom Grand was a man of many voices. He toggled through them with ease. “Water for the table, and I’ll have a Diet Coke.”

Lisa downed the rest of her cocktail and arched an eyebrow at her father. “She’ll have another one of those,” her father chuckled. Derrick the Waiter chuckled, too. When he was gone Tom leaned forward, playfully, conspiratorially.

“I don’t want you to think I’ve gone religious or AA on you. I just figure it’s been a long day, I probably should focus on rehydrating tonight.”

She hadn’t thought about his choice of beverage at all. At that moment she had been thinking that she probably didn’t need another drink, and that although she had been very hungry not long ago she suddenly didn’t really feel like sharing a meal with her father or anyone. She just wanted to go home. Barring that, she should probably switch at least back to wine.

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In Adam’s fall we sinned all, the old rhyme says, but sometimes Jaime believed that he had shouldered an unfairly large portion of that burden. He was sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, just a few feet from the sign forbidding people from doing so, talking morosely about some horrible experience in his life while Jaime listened attentively and finished off the last of her gelato. It was pretty chilly, a November kind of day, and he thought her silly for bothering with ice cream; her nose was already red from the weather, and her ears–only the tips of which were visible from under her grey knit cap–were also red, contrasting sharply with the little white earring studs she wore that day. As Jaime spoke he avoided looking at her, feeling that staring off into space would make his words seem all the more dramatic, as though he were speaking through that un-self-conscious fog of memory that dimestore novelists often have their more dramatic characters speak through. Jaime also knew that looking at her would distract him and break his mood: even in her present half-frozen state Jaime was by far the most beautiful person he’d ever known, and the sight of her dancing eyes would only make him happy, and happiness was not the effect he was going for here. Happiness would ruin the mood.

With the carefully mannered and thoughtfully articulated cadences of someone who wants to be taken seriously, Jaime spoke. “It would be easier if I knew what I wanted, then maybe I could figure out how to get it. But I feel like I’m just floundering about, rudderless. I miss who I was, but even more so I miss the prospect of being what I wanted to be.”

Through a mouthful of waffle cone Jaime replied, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” She stood and dusted herself off, munching as she walked over to the trashcan to throw away her wrapper. And with that the matter was settled. Jaime was always quick with a comment, and being so vastly superior to Jaime intelligence-wise and otherwise-wise, her comments often had the effect of shutting his self-deprecating musings up. She moved quickly, with the easy gait of someone that knows and understands herself, and when she spoke she did so in her sleek and pleasantly lilting voice that served as the perfect conduit for her wit, which always roared.

“You’re in Italy, homebelly,” she offered when she returned, “cheer up a bit.” She extended her hand to help lift him from his illegal perch and he took it, dusting off his rear after standing. They made an unlikely pair, the coincidence of their names notwithstanding. Her eyes were blue and her hair mousy-brown; his were the other way around. Though he towered over her, his evident lack of self-respect diminished his stature somewhat; Jaime often called him the littlest giant she’d ever seen. She herself was rather small, especially in relation to him, though she adamantly insisted that she was of average height.

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Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.

In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.

Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.

She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.

Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.

And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.

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