“Fantastic Something” by Mike Lee

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Albeit slower than before due to age, Calvin, the tortoise gray cat gracefully traverses the whitewashed concrete, leaping off to eat from his dish set on the terrace. While he quietly ate, Mike gives him a gentle stroke behind his ears. Calvin shakes it off to continue eating.

The sunburst mid-century clock hanging on the wall behind the half-opened terrace door chimes another August morning. August: sun-drenched skies and the breeze from the shore spread seemingly endlessly below the mountainside house Mike has leased for a year.

Mike did not need to be reminded of the time, having finally achieved the temporary luxury to waste it; perhaps a week, maybe a month more, yet no further. Then, it was time to get a job, or at least substantial online gig work.

He leans back in this metal chair, hands clasped behind his head, in his mind recounting the money he earned. This small fortune was not at all easy to come by—nothing in his life ever did—but he realized this cash was only good for two years unless he found work, which he imagined would be problematic until his working papers were approved.

But he had Calvin, his books, a laptop, clothes and his sanity. Freedom was another matter. To paraphrase the Velvet Underground, one is set free to face a new illusion. Mike was a realist to cut through the illusory fogginess of his perceived surroundings. He had severance pay and opportunities, but the former will not last and the latter could be a mirage. But he certainly had will and charm that aged well.

Calvin finishes the half can of sliced chicken, and pads off to use the box in the far corner of the terrace.

That afternoon, Mike went into town. He spent two years planning to live on this island. Wanted someplace different for a change, so off to the Mediterranean he went.

He almost fell off the scooter taking the second downward curve on the road to town. He righted himself just in time, but the experience left him breathless.

Maybe he was too old at 55 for a scooter, but then again, he thought, how old is young? He wasted no time in getting a battered two-tone blue and white Lambretta TV200 from a bike shop he discovered online before arriving on the island. The sideboards were dented and scratched, and there was some rust on the floorboards, but the wiring was redone and it ran. Still, it is cheaper to maintain than a leased car.

He felt his strongest survival skill was attaching himself to the Mod ethos of clean living under difficult circumstances. This became was his guiding concept. He learned the concept as a teenager. While the punk rockers and longhairs at high school either grew up or stayed stupid, Mike maintained a stylish individuality, with occasional compromising nods to career advancement.

But one afternoon listening to stupid during a managers meeting was enough. Within weeks Mike applied for a buyout, received severance and moved on.

It took a year to be approved for the long stay work residence visa, and though the process of getting little slips of paper and all the approvals, but he had an efficient gestor, a local official who walked Mike through the process. Also, Mike had a freelance gig at the time, thus fulfilling his work requirement.

Even so, that job ran out yesterday. He had to hustle for another.

But he wanted a superlative coffee at the café he discovered on his first day on the island. The exhaust sputtered on the Lambretta; Mike missed nothing he left behind.

Her name is Romi. She sits, reading a book. It is In Love by Arthur Hayes. Mike recognized the cover was a photograph by Saul Leiter.

Romi left her job, too. Floating in the realm of early retirement brought on by office burnout and unchangeable transitions. Drinking coffee on the slate table outside the café. The red flower sundress is in season, and the white straw hat shields Irish skin in light shadows. She teases Mike over the beat-up Lambretta. She should talk: Romi drives an old Sunbeam convertible that is worth more in parts than in the sum total of her sentimental attachments.

Every morning since they met on Monday they sit in conversation.

It was Thursday. Tourist season starts in another month, so they hold the café to themselves.

The music was an avalanche of shimmering guitars.

Interesting music the café is playing.

I asked them to play it. Called The Thousand Guitars of St. Dominques. I have it burned on a CD.

I vaguely remember. Haven’t heard in 35 years.

The band was Fantastic Brilliance, Romi says.

Oh yeah. I had that Cherry Red compilation. Whatever happened to them?

They were overwhelmed by the future.

Faintly living on in the fragmented memories of our respective early 20s. Youth ages quickly, and we don’t notice until forced into denial. Then–

We have to accept the truth. We discovered there is no meaning in our lives, and so here we are.

Yes, here we are, Mike says.

It is not bad. The sun is out most of the season, and when it rains, the sounds of the drops comfort me to sleep.

We just do enough to stay busy with dreams.

Romi stares ahead: Like a pair of blue stars, trembling.

Then, we have stuff to do and magnificence to overcome.

Ya, we outgrew that notion of achieving that, now, didn’t we?

Let’s walk to the docks and watch the ferry come in.

Or sit and talk.

We will age with words, sentences structured into paragraphs.

Roni smiles. Declarations and oaths, spinning yarns.

Mike motions the waiter for more coffee.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

“Prominence” by Mike Lee

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I do not belong here.

I check my compact, and see my lips are too red.

I slip it back in my clutch.

My hands, folded, rest on my periwinkle sheath dress with the lace bodice. My legs are closed. The dress is too tight. My knees sweat. I sweat when I lie.

I am like my father. But when we speak truth, the silences between the spoken is where the prevarications nestles comfortably, curled up undisturbed until suddenly roused with an unexpected follow-up question.

Everyone takes your word until they don’t. My father did all right until one silence between words betrayed him. They tied him to the back of a wooden chair and shredded him through his tan cashmere overcoat.

Through tears I learned: no false moves. When you talk your way into a situation, know exactly what to say to walk it back. Nothing is a full circle, just a high wire strung.

Do all these things, and you will die old. With what I intend to do today, this will not be my fate.

I slowly grow nervous. I shift weight, pulling my legs behind me like a child in class, ankles crossed. I went over the script in my head, visualizing the scene playing out as it was planned—and how I want it to happen.

Then the door opens, bringing forth a rush of wind with color and light splayed out around me. Through the light I see forms take shape to human, before becoming clear in my mind’s eye. From this formlessness I see fingers, knuckles, nails, and the palm gestures with an underhanded twist, fingers in unified motion. Fingertips elegantly turn inward to the person, an aging press officer with a sharp, straight hairline forming a short military haircut.

He looks like Albert Camus with acne scars.

My impression of him is he’s the type that brags in bars that he is a press secretary. He isn’t: a press officer is an underling used for passing messages, writing memos and working on first drafts of talking points. Also a sacrificial lamb when things go terribly wrong. Press officers are thrown down stairwells and machine-gunned for the cameras. Quite the Baader-Meinhof, but that was a long time ago.

Father remembered. Told me stories. He kept reminding me that he did not live them, only read and watched on television when he was an inspired child.

Eventually he joined the resistance with fanatic enthusiasm, pressing his luck until no more.

I hear a sting quartet playing in the distance. It’s music that conjures Mama. This provided the key to open the cipher—I never knew her. Shortly after my second birthday she was picked up in Peru and died in jail before I turned 7.

The permanent revolution is an eternal war. Generations pass ideas as grenades from one to another.

I feel a sense of disassociation when I greet the press officer, whose name escapes me. I forget everything, names, places, everything except the mission. This drives me further, encourages. Distance from existence focuses my attention on the goal.

He leads me into the large museum gallery. The strings reach for the crescendo.

Everything unfolds as I expect. I am calm to the point of deadness. I make eye contact, smile, and nod in pretend recognition. I hold my clutch close to my stomach. My message to the world is within.

We meet. He is a middle-aged man with tousled wavy hair, and an ageless face. His hazel eyes, however, betray a sad, weary expression.

I smile, inch closer to him and press hard with both hands on my clutch.

Suddenly, I’m thrust into the Gnostic divine. I reach to grasp the light.

Dad. Mom. Achieve dialectical synthesis.

 

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

‘Whippoorwills’ by Mike Lee

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Spring had come early that year, in late March. It was Friday, the last day of school before Easter break.  Eddie Walker, wearing black dingo boots, his wool-lined jacket tied around his waist, walked from the access road to the Interstate.  As his feet crunched on the gravel roadbed, mail stuffed inside an ignored textbook in hand, his mind wandered ahead to hanging out with Charlie Dodson the following day.

Until Charlie, Eddie had been fairly friendless since second grade, when Dad had left and Mom had moved them to live with her parents near a small North Carolina mill town.

Dad had moved on to Tampa, working at a vague job such as a glass plant; Eddie was not sure and neither was Mom.  She only cared about the checks that theoretically arrived every month, but rarely actually did.  Living at the edge of the district of his school, with no one close to his age in the mobile homes dotting the lower slopes of the mountain, left him lonely.  His mother worked late and his grandparents were too old to drive, so Eddie had never joined the Boy Scouts or Little League baseball.

Eddie crossed the brook that trickled beside the road at a curve, taking the trail he used as a shortcut to get home.  As he began his upward stroll through the budding magnolias and pines, Eddie saw something stir under the wet leaves near his feet.  He paused, and looked down to see a young snake, two feet in length, brownish with white stripes running down its body.  Startled, Eddie moved back a step.  He hated snakes.  He was never sure which ones were poisonous.

The snake merely passed across Eddie’s path, seemingly unaware of his presence, so he bent, picked up a stick, and poked at it.  Harmless, he concluded.  It felt strange to respond this way; usually Eddie recoiled in fear, but this time there was a sense of proactive empowerment.  He allowed the snake to wrap its head and upper body around the entire length of the stick, its face barely an inch from Eddie’s hand, before flinging them both over the rusted barbed wire fence several feet away.

Eddie stood, now believing he no longer feared snakes.  He felt he had grown, just a little.

The next morning, at around nine, a car pulled up around the corner.  Charlie had arrived.  He was new to the school, having moved from Michigan in time for seventh grade.  He and Eddie got along well from the start, sharing a couple of classes, sitting together at lunch.

Charlie got out, pulling his checked wool coat close against the cold, long blond hair spreading over his shoulders.  His mother drove off after a hug and a reminder to call her to pick him up, and then he and Eddie went inside.

“We are going to take the bus to the mall,” Eddie announced to his grandmother, who was busy reading a magazine while his grandfather sat in the chair beside her, staring at the television.  Eddie felt proud to show off that he had a friend and impress Charlie with his command of the house.  His grandmother nodded, telling them to have fun.  She had already left him five dollars for the trip, this excursion into the city.  Eddie had wanted to show Charlie the mountain and wander the thick woods behind the trailer, however Charlie preferred going into town, hanging out.  Play pinball.

They walked the path down to the gravel track, taking the access road to the overpass above the Interstate.  When they crossed the overpass, Charlie pointed at the railroad track.

“Ever ride trains?”

“Yeah.  All the time,” Eddie lied.

They wandered past the row of mailboxes and stood by the rail bed, watching the freight slowly coming in.  Eddie waited for Charlie to grab hold of the metal ladder on the empty flatbed, and copied his move.

They laid on their sides to watch the farmland and forested mountains beyond the Interstate.

Charlie sat up and reached into his jacket pocket.  “Wanna cig?”

“Sure, man.”  Eddie had started smoking, sneaking cigarettes in the woods behind the softball field during recess.  He took a Winston from the pack as Charlie lit it with a fly fisher lighter.

They stared at the desolate sky, the flatbed jolting slightly as the train picked up speed at a straightaway.

“Do you know where to get off?”  Charlie’s blond hair blew over his face, framing the cigarette between his lips.

“The I-26 exchange under construction.”  Eddie leaned on his side to see where they were.  “We’re passing over the river.”

Suddenly the train lurched as it hit a curve, causing Eddie to bounce in the air, landing on his shoulders and upper back.  When he turned to look for Charlie, he was gone.

“SHIT!”  Eddie crawled to the edge and looked over to see where Charlie had fallen off.  The train was still passing over the bridge, with the river flowing sixty feet below, brown and languid.

When the train halted he ran furtively out of the rail yard, slowing when he made it to the river road.  He saw the ambulances and fire trucks along the bank by the bridge.

He took a path that led to the other side of his mountain, walking through trammeled ground, the path worn to a gully. As periods of silence were broken by the cries of the whippoorwills, he felt himself two steps past redemption.

When Eddie arrived home, it was night. Mom, grandparents waited outside the house.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com

‘Bad Penny’ by Mike Lee

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I reside in your left pocket. I clang, scratch and wear down with age, along with the rock your ex-girlfriend gave you; the one she found on a beach on the west coast of Ireland. My name is Lincoln, 1977-D. D stands for Denver, from  the mint where I was strikingly born, shiny and new, 1977 being the date of my creation.

You were upset the day you found me. You wanted to see Star Wars. But you were with your grandmother, walking on the street to the grocery store. You spotted me, and bent down to pick me up. If you collected three hundred of me, you thought, you could go see the movie.

I lie in concrete darkness, my tail exposed to the elements. Thanks for that. I get to see the sun some mornings in the decades since you found me. Resent the times I am not, but whatever, I remain unspent in my existence.

Your grandmother was appalled.

“Don’t pick that up,” she said. “It’s a bad penny and it will bring you bad luck.”

You waited until she wasn’t looking, then you ran back and grabbed me from that  obscure ground.

You did see the movie. Too bad I was unable to enjoy it. I was deep in the pocket of your dungarees.

While my life is secure with you, I always wanted to travel. Pennies travel far, you see, at least that is what I learned with my comrades at the Denver Mint, moving from bin to bin, and later rolled into paper, traveling to the bank. Who knows where I had gone over the years?

Instead, I came out of a little drawer in a cash register, and then fell from a hand while at a bus stop. A penny was still worth enough to be used for a bus. I’ve heard conversations over the years to know that I’m worth much less, and my younger comrades are not even of copper anymore.

I am rather pissed being stuck with you. After all this time, I believed that by the transitive property of logic I would get lost due to your incompetence. But, no—I am still here. Thanks for that. Keeping me is, unfortunately, the only aspect of your life you seem to do consistently well.

I hope tonight is the night you finally lose me. At this point, getting lost anywhere is a positive.

You hit the pavement hard this time. I have become aware enough about your life choices you were not long for this earth, but do you listen? No.

Through the denim fabric, I feel that the ground is cold on my tail. My head is detecting that your blood flow is a little off–more than usual. I feel it diminishing. The boom boom boom echoing from your heart was rapid, then slowing.

I am beginning to believe that something terribly wrong is going on with you.

The sounds have stopped. I am getting colder.

I guess then this is the moment where I should tell you how I feel about you.

There is a reason why you are where you are, which is dying, if not already dead.

No one is indispensable except to the other person. And since you know everyone, so therefore you are alone. You can lie to yourself and say this is not by choice but subconsciously, well, you do things that alienate others. Firstly, you are self-referential at inopportune times in light conversation.

This puts others off. Instead of having interesting things to say on subjects they are talking about, you refer to largely irrelevant personal experiences that you are kind of bullshitting about.

For instance, driving fast on a straightaway sometime in 1983 is not drag racing in high school, and others pick up on that. Learn to be truthful. Or better yet, learn to shut the fuck up.

Secondly, when you say you know certain others of your kind.

You do not know these people. Meeting them once on a social occasion, exchanging greetings–even shaking hands–is not true knowledge.

This is like buying a book and never reading it, but it sits there as if the possession of the object, like the fleeting moment of slightly significant human contact signifies a profound moment in history. Europeans are pretty brutal about this. From them, you may get a “Know me? KNOW ME? Have you ever had dinner with me? NO! You do not KNOW ME!”

At that, I’ve made my point.

So, need I search far for a third? Eh, why bother? Anyhow, I am tired of this fucking rock crushing me.

I am the bad penny that you stupidly picked up against the wisdom of your grandmother.

You were nine years old. You should have always listened to your elders. They knew shit.

Okay, perhaps I am oversimplifying your plight. But it is because you are a font of experiences that really did not quite happen in the way that you express them to others, and that you know everyone.

You knew no one, and not much of anything.

And at the moment you are indispensably dispensable.

Sorry. You should have been told that before, but I’m just a charmless cent.

Picking pennies from the ground. That is what led you to this.

I worry now I will be buried with your ex-girlfriend’s rock.

Damn.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Airgonaut, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com.

‘Young Once’ by Mike Lee

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I am with my wife Penny. We were young once. We are on vacation. Sunlight bathes us in its golden glow. Our world seems like a dream, now slipping toward a chasm.

We are in a small boat caught in a tremendous current. As we passed the low hanging wooden plank bridge, the river widened and our chances of going against the waves dropped to zero. We haven’t the strength. The cataracts are ahead. She and I missed the warning signs posted on the bridge.

Penny and I are on vacation here, at the river. This is our adventure: camping, and this boat.

 

As we paddle furiously, Penny cuts her hand on a splinter. Blood curls around her fingers.

No. It is not only her blood because, after all, it is my blood too. Our lives are intertwined, wrapped in glassine binds, through fate and regenerating faith. It is this Celtic coil, which is what is best described that defines our existence together.

 

As we struggle, I remember: forms of refusal in the context of the hardened artifact, that which remains after the memory of the photograph of a smile on a front porch in the Brykerwoods neighborhood in Austin, Texas during the summer of 1977. Those old square Kodak Instamatic prints turn orange and yellow with decline of decades.

Penny held in her hands is a copy of A Season of Hell. She knows what it is about. Sometimes she fools herself with how much she knows.

I remember the chocolate brown coffee table stacked with Anais Nin and George Oppen. Mom read them. Mom was studying for her English masters’. The air conditioner ran too long and loudly, and I recall the hardwood floors of the duplex I lived then with my mother. We were kids. We met the day Elvis died.

 

As our boat rushes toward the cataract Penny kisses me, telling me. “I look forward in the future to the end of time.”

Penny paused, pointing with bloodstained fingers toward the chasm. “And this is soon.”

 

When you are young, life is languid. You cannot wait to be an adult. We rushed to grow, chafing against weight of the clock.

Now, time rushes as fast as the current. What was before a push forward, we desperately pull backward.

As then, we are failing. You always end up fooling yourself with your naïve approach to mortality. There are no exceptions.

 

I began to tell her this but my response is drowned out in the deafening roar emanating from the looming chasm ahead. After a few words, I stop and pull her tight.

Yet Penny understands what I mean as the boat heaves upward in the churning water.

Mike Lee is a writer, editor, labor journalist and photographer living in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, Alexandria Quarterly, The Airgonaut and others. He also writes for the photography website Focus on the Story. Website is www.mleephotoart.com.

★ ‘Classmates’ by Mike Lee

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At times, I have difficulty fully letting go of my past. For example, every several years I go on Internet searches and get on former classmate websites to check in on who I used to know.

The classmate websites are general knowledge, depending on who participates. Those who do are those I only recognize because I have a knack of recalling whoever sat in the third row of home room in fifth grade. Invariably, I don’t think I ever exchanged more than a few words with those people the entire time we were in school together.

They had their friends, and I had mine.

My friends were never on those sites. They, for their own personal reasons, are nonexistent by senior year of high school. In fact, they all seem to disappear by junior year. It’s as if they all vanished in a group after I moved from the area after my freshman year.

I only returned twice at a time where I could re-engage them. I chose not to, though at a Denny’s I spoke with a friend of a girl I had a crush on. She told me she was having her second baby.

We were seventeen, then. I never asked about anyone again.

*

When I was nineteen, my aunt sent me a news clipping of a classmate I was friends with since second grade. He killed himself.

In retrospect, I blame myself. A month after I moved to the new city, I wrote a long, extensive letter to a girl who had given me her address on the last day of school. Her name was Pam. She had light brown hair, wavy cut in bangs, had bad acne and wore multicolored jeans, with patches and tank tops. She smoked a lot of pot, and we got stoned at a KISS concert and made out. Pam said she liked me. So I wrote her a letter.

Before I had the chance to mail it, Mom found the letter. When she read it, she flew into a rage and grounded me for the rest of the summer. Scared me enough to not write again.

What was in the letter? A short story I wrote. I don’t remember the details but it involved the friends I had as characters. We were bad kids, or indifferent emotionally. I don’t know which were worse, or which group I fell into. I wasn’t that bad, at least I don’t remember.

But Mom freaked out about what I wrote. I won’t forget the red-faced rage, the expression of that curling smile which meant she was on the edge of psychosis and how her hands shook as she held the pages I wrote to Pam.

That shut me down for a while. School started, and a new life began. My one chance at maintaining a connection snipped off and lost.

It didn’t matter, anyway. Life got good. Dated girls. Made friends for a lifetime. The course of my life changed for the better, though it took a while for me to recognize it.

Out of curiosity I began looking for them. What struck me is they were all gone by senior year. It was not as if I was looking for a small number. This was a couple of dozen teenagers, from three different high schools—from the high school I attended, and the high school that my junior high was the feeder school for.

All gone, vanished, as if they never existed and were nothing but a fantasy gang I created from daydreams.

I thought I had gone crazy, but finally I found my freshman yearbook. They were there.

The Carver brothers, twins, disappeared by junior year. Dave Biggers wasn’t in the sophomore yearbook. Pam was the only one who made it to junior year. While staring at her black and white photo, she was still Pam, but no sign of her in senior year. I did an internet check to see what she was up to now. Couldn’t find a thing, though. Did find the other girl, the one with babies at seventeen. She was an accountant in another county. Despite everything, she made it. Was awfully proud of her.

Her name was Maria. She wrote me a poem, which I kept in my wallet for decades until it was stolen in an ATM in lower Manhattan several years ago.

Joey, Megan, Rose, Teena, Danny—the list was long and they all either left by the end of sophomore or junior year. They would not have transferred. They probably all dropped out, or disappeared into a void.

I knew Steve Casey was not going to be there. On the last day of school, I remember standing in the smoking area and spotted him at the awning by the curb.

Steve wore a gray suit and tie. Looking at him, I recalled he went as Elvis for Halloween. In retrospect, I found that ironic. The king goes to the counting house.

I walked over and he turned to shake my hand. “Hey man, I’m going to court today. I don’t know if you’ll see me again.”

I didn’t believe him. He was only fifteen, but yes, I never saw him after that.

*

Not too long ago I had a dream of the old gang hanging out in the woods behind the trailer park where I had lived. It was dark, and we started a fire, sitting around the comforting flames, getting fucked up.

I had my old Norelco tape deck, playing Black Sabbath Vol. 4. Joints were passed around. We drank Annie Green Springs and Georgia peach wine. Pam was ignoring me, angry for some reason.

Maria sat directly across from me, staring appraisingly, silent.

I was curious. “What’s up?”

She paused, closed her eyes.

Upon reopening, she said. “I see who you will be when you are older.”

Around her, the figures faded into nonexistence. Maria, however, remained.

The embers crackled as I awakened.

Mike Lee is a writer, editor, labor journalist and photographer living in New York City. His fiction is published in Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, Homestead Review, Alexandria Quarterly, The Airgonaut and others. He also writes for the photography website Focus on the Story. Website is www.mleephotoart.com.