Among Poets

A sixteen-foot blowfish stuck her spiny yellow claws into my arm
Then planted her fuschia balloon lips on my chest

The shiny seven-foot dolphin offered a smoke.

Through gray-green dune grass and sprays of cold salt
I had plunged, faithless, into the sea.

Called down,
Away from the anesthesia of oxygen,
To breathe through water and call it home.

My virgin voyage to Poesy

Where nobody has a mother.

Local Author Profile: Lisa Scottoline

Killer Smile, Lisa Scottoline’s eleventh novel, has already been chosen as Main Selections by both Literary Guild and Mystery Guild. It will also be featured in Doubleday Book Club, Quality Paperback and Book of the Month Club. Philadelphia Stories talked with Lisa about her life as a writer, and what it means to be a writer from Philadelphia.

What was the inspiration for your latest crime novel?
My inspiration for Killer Smile came when my father, who was terminally ill, called me over. He said he had two important things to give me. One was the deed to the family cemetery plot, and the other he said was the last of the family secrets. He handed me two booklets covered in pink paper. They turned out to be my grandparents’ alien registration cards. It was then that I learned an important piece of U.S. history, and a very personal piece of my own family history.

During WWII, as many as 600,000 Italian Americans were forced to register as enemy aliens, and thousands more were relocated, and even interned. In Killer Smile, lawyer Mary DiNunzio sets out to get reparations for Amadeo Brandolini, an Italian American who committed suicide while interned during World War II. Mary discovers that Brandolini did not actually commit suicide, and she is determined to find justice for him.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
The truth is that I don’t write with an outline. When I have an idea, which is only once a year, I go ahead and write it. I let the story develop as I write it. Even I am not always sure which direction it will take.

Did you always want to write?

No, I loved Perry Mason, and always wanted to be a lawyer. I practiced law for several years, but at the same time I was a bookaholic. Eventually I traded one passion for another.

How did you become a professional writer?
I was working as a litigator at one of Philly’s most prestigious law firms, when the birth of my daughter coincided with a divorce. I wanted to stay home to raise my daughter, but still needed a way to pay the mortgage. At the time, Grisham and Turow had come on to the scene, and it occurred to me that there was no one writing from the female perspective. I lived off credit cards for several years, and wrote while my daughter slept (which wasn’t much). I had finally just taken a part-time job as a law clerk when my first book, Everywhere That Mary Went sold to HarperCollins.

How does the Philadelphia area influence your writing?

All my books are set in Philly. I love Philly for its neighborhoods, dialects and heavy dose of reality, and thought it would be terrific to put it on the literary map. The law was also born in Philly, so what better place to set legal fiction books?

Can you offer any advice to young writers?
Just to go for it! I believe everyone has a story in them, and they should never be discouraged to put it on paper.

Pierce Street

I first see the cat on my way out to the Super Fresh to pick up Portobello mushrooms. He’s lying on the other side of our one-way street, a single lane narrow enough to be an alley really, a place where he never would have lain normally, smart stray that he was. I didn’t look for long, only enough to confirm that his body had been crushed, though not which part, to acknowledge the red pool spreading slowly beneath him, the flies already buzzing inside the mouth that the car wheel had forced open.

I look up and down Pierce Street and see that I’m alone. There’s no one around to fill me in on what happened, no one but me and this dead cat. It’s a hazy summer night in South Philadelphia. Air conditioning units whir from first and second floor windows. It isn’t much of a decision, really. I’m strapped for time, with a friend due to arrive for dinner and my new backyard grill not even fired. I keep moving, toward my Nissan, which beeps cheerfully when I aim the keyless remote toward it.

I squeeze my car around the cat, turn the corner and wave to the two old ladies sitting on beach chairs in the next alley. They smile and wave back. We’ve been on better terms lately. Our relationship, which even now consists solely of smiling and waving, has evolved slowly. At first they were content to stare as I drove past them on my way out for the evening. I forced the issue, though, making eye contact and waving when I was in a good mood and staring straight ahead when I wasn’t. The inconsistent approach didn’t exactly loosen them up, but now we have the routine down: I nod and smile, they smile and wave.

This brief interaction doesn’t help my mood, though. I make my way through a grid of streets in the gray summer night, pondering the reality of my neighborhood, a place where cats are hit by cars that keep driving. Where a friend of mine called the morning after my housewarming party, insisting that I move immediately after she had witnessed a gang of kids beat up another kid over on Washington Avenue on her way home. Where the people next door, a family that I knew would be trouble not long after I had moved in, once put a bullet through the center of my front picture window.

I was out for the night, having dinner at my parents’ house south of the city, in the now-suburban countryside where I grew up. It was dusk when I returned to find police tape separating my row house and the one next to it from the small crowd that had gathered. A group of women and children, some whom I vaguely recognized, pointed me toward the cop who stood nearby guarding the crime scene.

I didn’t ask for an explanation and the cop didn’t provide one, although I heard the story plenty of times in the weeks to come from Norman, the boy who knows everything there is to know about what goes on around Pierce Street. His face would light up and his glasses flash as he recreated the scene, the domestic dispute that erupted in the house next to mine and spilled out into the street. How the old lady’s son went after the guy nobody had ever seen before, how everybody scattered — adults, kids, everybody, including Norman — when the old lady gave the gun to her dear boy so he could start shooting. He didn’t get the guy, Norman said, his narrative slowing in disappointment. But I should have seen how the cops came running, he said, speaking breathlessly again. They must have been right up the street to get here so fast after everybody started using their cell phones to call 911!

At first the cop wouldn’t let me past the tape, but he changed his mind after a few minutes, with a warning not to touch anything until the detectives showed up. As I unlocked my front door, I took a closer look at the window. The hole the bullet had made was small and perfect, except for single cracks on each side that extended from the hole to the frame, like blood vessels in the eye of someone who is tired or stoned.

Inside, I turned on the light next to my sofa. Everything in the living room looked as I had left it, except for the tiny shards of glass on the stereo and carpet, and the hole the streaking bullet had made in my ceiling. I looked at the one in the window and the one in the ceiling and made a quick calculation: even if I had been standing right in front of the window, watching the fireworks, I wouldn’t have gotten hit. A broom that wasn’t mine was lying out on the patio, a stray projectile from the earlier rounds of the fight next door.

Later, I sat on the sofa watching the NBA Finals, as a detective stood on the chair I had lent him and poked a thin metal rod with a circular catch into my ceiling.

“Who’s up?” he asked.

“ Lakers by ten. Third quarter.”

“ Looks like their year again, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Too bad.” He nodded, concentrating on extracting the bullet. “Having any luck?”

“Nope,” he said, grunting as he stepped down from the chair. “That’s okay. We’ll have enough to nail him without it. Better call your landlord. Give him this when you see him,” he said, handing me his card.


The cat is still lying there when I get home. The street still seems deserted, but then I see Bobbie peering out her screen door and shaking her head. She looks distressed. I don’t know her well but I like her. Her face, perpetually tanned, is weathered enough to suggest someone in her late forties. Childless, she and her husband live in the house directly across from mine. Every night she spends ten minutes with the hose watering the plants on the sidewalk, a lit cigarette dangling from her lower lip. Her garden is a dazzling array of color, all in ceramic pots, and the only sign of natural life on Pierce Street. She smiled and said she would help when I told her I intended to start my own right across from her, but that was a few weeks ago and the last time we spoke.

“I’ll go get a box,” I tell her.

Her expression changes from one of concern to one of resolve. “I’ve got one,” she


“Then I’ll go get gloves.”

She lines a cardboard box from her SUV with a green trash bag and gives it to me. I find that the only way to pick the cat up is to not think about it too deeply, not speculate on the life it might have led, a life I never considered that often on my way to and from my car every day. This must be the attitude anyone must have who confronts what violence does to the flesh for a living, I tell myself. The head sags and the flies scatter as I wrap my hands around the broken body, the blood smearing against the dried soil of my gardening gloves. Bobbie grabs her hose and aims a jet stream at the small pool still in the street. I hold on to the box, unsure of what to do with it, deciding finally to put it on the sidewalk in front of the house where the cat was hit.

Just then Milanya comes out. I have been wondering where she’s been. It is she who has been putting out the styrofoam bowls of dry food that were eaten every day by this stray and two others. Her attempt to domesticate one of the others, a feral kitten that I once found curled up on my doormat as I left for work on one of the coldest mornings of the year, has become a mini-drama recently. So far her efforts to catch Buster and take him to an animal hospital have been unsuccessful. She had gotten as far as coaxing him onto her lap, but last week I came out to find her sitting on a nearby stoop, sobbing, three fresh scratches running up the inside of her arm. Buster stared at her from the other side of a locked gate that protected his alley. She wasn’t crying from the pain, Milanya explained, but for all the days it would take to earn the cat’s trust again. So far she has ignored my sister, a lab tech at a veterinary hospital whose advice I solicited, about getting a cat trap instead.

When she sees the box and realizes what’s inside, she throws up her hands and paces back and forth, not sure what to do with herself. For someone in his late thirties, I feel like I’ve had surprisingly little experience consoling others after a loss. I can see, though, that it doesn’t require much practice: assume what you hope is a sympathetic expression, and nod with conviction at everything the mourner says, whether you agree with it or not. Keep controversial opinions, like your feelings about whether or not one should feed stray cats to begin with, to yourself.

“Who the hell could run over a cat like that and just leave it to die in the street?” Milanya asks. “And I’m sorry, but he’d have to be driving pretty damn fast to hit one in the first place.” While I agree with the first comment and act like I do for the second, I find that I have a hard time empathizing with Milanya’s hysteria. She is choosing to see what has happened as a crime against the cat. And in one way, I agree. All this just confirms something I don’t like about my neighborhood, reinforces my belief that ultimately I’ll never stay, will live here for now because the rent is cheap and the location convenient, but never buy, something that separates me from Milanya and Bobbie and most of the other residents on Pierce Street. But in another**, the cat’s death is just the law of averages kicking in, a probability that Milanya, through her daily bowls of cat food, inadvertently increased. **Not clear; maybe “But in another way,…”

She goes inside to see about having the cat cremated (“My God, we have to do something, we can’t just throw her in the trash!”). I’m about to as well – I’m wasting time and my friend should be arriving any minute now – when Lisa opens the screen door next to mine and says hello. She and her husband Mark moved in after the gunslingers left and the landlord gutted and renovated the place. He works in pharmaceuticals outside the city; she is five months pregnant with their first child. They’re a nice couple and a sign that gentrification, for better or worse, may finally be arriving here on Pierce Street.

We strike up a conversation about my job. She knows from some previous exchanges that I’m an English teacher, and asks me if I know someone she once had in high school, a Catholic parochial school for girls not far from our neighborhood. I don’t know the guy, explaining that private schools like mine don’t interact much with the archdiocesan ones.

“Was he a good teacher?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, he was great. I had him for AP English. He’s taught there for like 35 years.”

“It’s great to have one who really mattered, huh?”

“Oh yeah. He was like, the only good thing about that place.” She smiles when she says this, although the pain of the memory breaks in on the innocence of the smile.

“So what else is going on?” she asks.

“Oh, not much … oh, well, actually, it’s too bad, one of those stray cats just got hit by a car.” I try to adjust my tone to something more serious but it’s too late. Lisa’s face goes blank with confusion. Just then Milanya comes back out, still beside herself.

“Milanya?” she asks. “Which one?”

“Muggsy,” Milanya answers, wiping her eyes. “The one you were worried about.”

“Is he?” Lisa’s eyes darken and soften as she begins to comprehend. “Will you excuse me?” she asks, not really conscious of who I am anymore.

I can’t make out the muffled words behind her front door as she tells her husband the news, but I can hear clearly what comes after that: the sounds of her sobbing uncontrollably. Mark comes out a minute later. “I’ve never seen her so upset,” he says quietly, lighting a cigarette, and I nod with real empathy this time, keeping to myself the unexpected gratitude I feel for the high-pitched gasps I can still hear inside. Someone is doing what none of us had been capable of on this hot July night in the city. Someone is grieving at last.

Matthew Jordan grew up in Delaware County and now lives in South Philadelphia. A graduate of Albright College in Reading, PA and the University of Pennsylvania, he is finishing a Master?s program in English and Creative Writing at Rutgers-Camden. He teaches literature and writing at a private high school in Bucks County.

Tourette Poem #14

I’ve burdened my son with this now.
He misses strides, kisses the silence,
twists himself into a wretched mess.

A guest in his own body,
he is uncomfortable with the gaze
of strangers.

Too young to be so cautious,
too innocent to grapple with the whims
of that body gone haywire,

he stands at the edge of a narrow morning,
hoping that what is his prison
will someday be his palace.

“Daddy,” he said, “what disguise
do you wear to fool yourself?” or

“Can you taste on your tongue
the slow way mountains move?”


Anthony DiFiore has been writing poetry for thirty years. For the last several years he has been writing poems about Tourette’s and the Bible. Currently, he manages a thrift store that uses its profits to aid abused women and their children.


We sit in an airless room surrounded by windows
Blue-black sky, towering neighbors
Wheelchair heaven.

You describe your dream:
Recurring images of chemo-stallions racing across your night sky
Towing starched lines that abruptly plunge to earth.

Lilacs hang daintily on the shower-rings of
New age transfusions,
Shamelessly spilling the scent of spring.

You take an old picture frame,
Plucked from the attic of your mind
And work to bring it all together.
It doesn’t fit.

Smell the lilacs
Feel the power of the stallion’s haunches
See the blue, blue sky without interpretation.

Enjoy this day, this view.
It is all you.


The Piano Chord Most Adjacent to the Inexpressible

The piano chord most adjacent to the inexpressible is the
one that dissolves into flocks of flying birds

The tree as it moves through the breeze most
adjacent to conducting the sonorous
filaments of the air stands as tall as a
doorman to an entranceway to the eternal mysteries

The desert most adjacent to spiritual enlightenment is the
one whose dunes yesterday don’t resemble its
dunes today and whose dunes today
have slopes and dips totally ocean-like and unlike any of its
dunes tomorrow

The rain is finally falling after a month of drought
little earth-lips opening to drink in each drop
and the song each water-drinking element sings
resembles the chorus of an ancient opera sung among
cataclysmic rocks above tumultuous seas

There are no people in this poem
they are either asleep or haven’t been born yet
but the sound in the landscape most adjacent to the
deep heartfelt human voice
is the night-cricket seeming to long for a mate wherever
it may happen to hear its lament repeated
incessantly but melodiously through the dark

So like us
in catastrophe or anti-catastrophe
calling out to space from our centrifugal loneliness
with a voice most adjacent to the
silent nuzzling feeler to feeler of ants meeting from
opposite directions
and lights beaming from north and south and brightly
blending somewhere over the
Arctic in a purple and scarlet shivering aurora borealis
whose ripples are most adjacent to the
music of the spheres hanging down into the
visible from the invisible heavens whose
radiant flowing draperies curving through the folding air
they are


Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore was born in 1940 in Oakland, California. His first book of poems, Dawn Visions, was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, San Francisco, in 1964. He became a Muslim/Sufi in 1970, performed the Hajj in 1972, and lived in Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Nigeria. In 1996 he published The Ramadan Sonnets, and in 2001 a new book of poems, The Blind Beekeeper.

The Decade I Longed To Be Grown

I wanted to talk jive.
I wanted to be funky
like the white boy who sang
psychedelic slang
& give birth
to a new dance trend
called disco.

I wanted to be
a kaleidoscope
big as an afro-shaped-globe,
spinning my own tempo
under black light dust.
I’d be a lava-lamp chick
— stone-cold bumping
my have-mercy hips—
& do the hustle
in mommy’s platform heels.

I wanted to be cool.
I wanted to cruise
with my own fly-dude
& steer
the turntable wheels.
We’d groove
What’s Going On?
in daddy’s brown El Camino,
pose mean gangsta leans
in neon-fur-smothered-bucket-seats,
& watch

Lucy’s Sky Diamonds
dangle & dance
like brilliant erotic dice.


Penny Dickerson is a 1988 graduate of Temple University where she earned a B.A. degree in Journalism and is currently a M.F.A. candidate in the Lesley University Creative Writing Program (Low Residency) in Cambridge, Mass. (Graduation: January 2005). She has additionally taken a continuing education poetry writing course at University of the Arts under the tutelage of Donna Wolf-Palacio and was once a “Suppose an Eye” participant at the Kelly Writer’s House and looks forward to her parenting scheduling and graduate school time to allowing her to come back. Previous poetry works and journalism have been published in the anthology, Azure and Amber, the Florida Times-Union and her poem, “A Conscious Statement” won first place winner in the Ritz Theatre’s poetry contest in Jacksonville, Florida. Penny will serve as Poet-in-Residence at Andrew Jackson Elementary School (K-8), this fall as a final graduation interdisciplinary project.


Aunt Ginny is up in her Cessna
Navigating circles and dips
Swooping in the sun

Uncle Jack is on the porch
Smoking dope and thinking
This getting old’s a bitch
When you’re sick

He faces the sky and
Looks for Aunt Ginny
They had a tough winter with his cancer
And weather so bad she couldn’t fly

But it’s spring now
And things are good
Uncle Jack rocks
Smokes dope
And plans
The sun is strong
The flowers are sweet
Maybe I’ll eat lunch today
If that’s stronger than the chemo

He rocks
And watches
While his beautiful white hair
Dead at the root
Blows off his head
Strand by strand
Sprinkling new flowers like snow

Up in the sky
Aunt Ginny does another loop de loop


Sandy Crimmins has been published in a variety of print and electronic journals, including American Writing, City Primeval, femmesoul, Isosceles, and Hysteria. Her work appears in the anthologies Meridian Bound, The Eternal Now, and Pagan’s Muse. She is also a spoken word artist, performing her work with musicians, dancers, and fire-eaters.


I look for Scottie’s cab when I turn the corner onto our block in West Philly. I see lots of cars, glossy brand-new drug dealer cars, old rusty sedans that never move. I see the two big white vans that drive the crazy guys to and from the halfway house across the street. I see cars and the gas truck and bags of trash and a couple of surly teenagers sitting on a stoop, but I don’t see Scottie’s green and white cab anywhere.

My stomach drops. I’m just coming home from working at the restaurant to change and eat before my next job, and Scottie’s been out driving since dawn. The odds of us both stopping at home at the same time are ridiculously low. But sometimes it happens. On the days I turn the corner and see his cab, I feel a little thrill.

But I need to stop. I’m going to leave Scottie. I need to stop doing everything that keeps us a couple. My plan is not to force it. My plan is to let things between us get to such an empty and vague place that my leaving won’t hurt either of us. It’s like when I was a kid and had a loose tooth and I didn’t want my dad or anyone pulling on it. I’d just leave it alone and jiggle it every now and then and soon it fell out on its own.

I try to stop thinking about Scottie and park my lousy little Chevette and think about what I’m having for lunch. I’m wondering whether there’s mustard in the refrigerator for a grilled cheese.

There’s this guy standing at the front doors of our building. He’s wearing a blue gas company uniform. He looks down from the top of the stairs and he squints. “You live here?” he asks.

“Uh, huh” I reply. He looks so tall from where I stand, and he’s got his hands on his hips like there’s some problem.

“Gas leak?” he says. “Someone called in a gas leak?” he says in a deep voice. He has super short hair and a tiny silver hoop in each ear. I look him up and down. His gasman uniform fits him loose and sexy, and I like his boots. They’re dark green and scuffed like he’s been wearing them forever.

He waves his hand in front of me as if to rouse me from a trance. “Hello?” he asks, a thread of annoyance marring his sexy voice. “Can’t you smell it? There’s gas out here all over the sidewalk.”

Yes, I think, and what else? This block smells like garbage and cats and city slime. On Sunday mornings it smells like piss and spilt beer from these Spanish guys who party in their cars.

Today I smell all of it and yes, on top I smell something sweet. “Yeah,” I say, “I guess there’s gas. But how do you know it’s coming from upstairs?”

“Lady,” the gasman says, squinting harder. I dig the way his thick dark eyelashes fan over his narrow brown eyes like a web. “I said somebody called it in. It’s definitely coming from this building. Do you have keys to the basement? I have to get in the basement and shut the gas off.”

“OK, OK,” I say and straighten up. This isn’t the right time to flirt. “No, I don’t have keys to the basement. And my landlord’s away, in Boston. Where’s the leak coming from anyway?”

The gasman shakes his head. “I don’t know. I need to get inside though. I need to check all the apartments.”

I nod and we head upstairs to my place. The gasman climbs the stairs in front of me. I watch his butt—I can see a ripple through his loose pants, the muscles flexing all the way down to the back of his knee. Checking out another man is a good sign that I’m ready to be free of Scottie.

I open the door to the apartment and it’s a mess. On the kitchen floor are two piles of dirty laundry that I started to separate days ago. The cat box hasn’t been changed in weeks. There’s an unopened bag of potato chips on the kitchen counter next to the sink. I want to rip it open and devour the whole thing.

The gasman goes nuts as soon as he walks in the door. “Shit!” he shouts. “This place is loaded!” He runs behind the kitchen table and opens the window.

He’s right. The sweet gas smell is heavy up here. I hurry into the bathroom and open the little window, then head to the living room.

“I need to get into the apartments downstairs!” he shouts from the bedroom. “Do you have keys to any of them?”

I yell back that I don’t, but maybe Scottie does. He’s out driving his cab, but I can call his cell and get him home right away.

I go back to the kitchen and dial Scottie’s number, cleaning a pile of CDs off a chair at the kitchen table so I can sit down. Scottie’s got a bunch of cords and music stuff all over the other chairs. He hasn’t played in a band in almost a year and I get so sick of looking at everything. Scottie doesn’t answer, so I leave a quick message telling him to get his butt back to the apartment.

The gasman storms out into the kitchen and heads out the door down to my neighbors’. Shit. I don’t have time to get all sunk into this. In forty-five minutes I have to be at my afternoon job on the other side of town. I’m starving and I need to get out of my stinking restaurant uniform and into something halfway decent. I guess I could grab something to eat on the way, even though I can’t spend any extra money since our phone’s going to get shut off next week if I don’t pay the bill.

The gasman comes back up to my kitchen and says we have to go back outside now. There’s a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead, which I find pretty hot. It wouldn’t be on many men, like Scottie for instance, but it is on this guy. I cross my legs and lean over the table, knowing my white waitressing shirt is hanging open a little.

“I guess a cigarette is out of the question,” I say.

“Funny,” the gasman says and smiles weakly.

I like being up here with him. I liked opening the windows with him and I want to keep him up here with me. I want to make him a grilled cheese with mustard and ask him questions about his job.

But he’s in no mood, I can tell. He’s trying to do his job. Smell gas—get outside.

“OK,” I say, standing up. “Outside it is. My boyfriend won’t call back anyway. He’ll just come straight home.” I say the word boyfriend with as little enthusiasm as possible, coolly, as though it’s a business arrangement.

Scottie is already pulling up to the curb when we get downstairs. He was probably coming home anyway, which means we could have had lunch together. Too bad.

I notice how dirty his cab is, big smears of mud all up the side and gray sludge on the windows. I’m always bugging him about it. He’d get more fares if he just

ran it through a car wash every few days. But Scottie says it doesn’t matter—a cab’s a cab. Besides, the car wash would mean a good forty bucks a month from his take-home.

Scottie crosses the street and heads right for the gas man, ignoring me. I can tell by the way he’s walking that he’s not too high. His body doesn’t have that caved in look it sometimes gets. But I won‘t know for sure until I see his eyes up close. They’re usually a medium green, but the dope makes them pale and speckled, like a marble.

“I used to have keys,” he’s telling the gasman. “I gave them back to our landlord though. Sorry. Just break in the basement. It doesn’t matter.”

Scottie comes over to me finally and puts his arm around me. “Hey, babe,” he says, and kisses me on the mouth. I can see that while he’s not high, he’s definitely done his stupid heroin today. Just like every day. He says he can’t drive the cab if he’s dope-sick.

The gasman is heading off to the side of the house. I give his ass another look. I like how solid his body is. How healthy. I like the fleshiness of his long thighs.

Scottie doesn’t notice me looking. I think about how when he first started shooting up again, I called him all the time and told him it was an emergency and made him come home so I could see him high. He’d come right away. I’d hear him stumble up the stairs, and I’d open the door and he’d just stand there, eyes half closed, slowly scratching his face. There was no emergency though. Scottie would come inside and sit down, smoke a cigarette and leave. He never asked why I called him. But after a few weeks he’d ignore me. He’d tell me later his cell’s batteries were low.

Scottie had been off heroin four months when we met. I figured he wasn’t a risk anymore, that he’d keep going to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings and he’d be OK. Life with me was too good to mess up.

But more and more that’s a bunch of shit. Our relationship began on a shaky premise and it’s only gotten worse. I should have left months ago. The fact that I didn’t is making me mean. When I’m not trying to figure out how to leave, I’m trying to figure out why I’ve stayed so long.

Getting Scottie was a challenge and keeping him’s been a challenge, and the truth is, he never was mine anyway. I met Scottie when he was still with Gayle, this fucked up sculptor girl I worked with. She had a body like Barbie and a really annoying laugh and she did way too many drugs, but we were stuck working the lunch shift together so we got to be friends. She’d tell me all about Scottie, how sweet he was, how good to her he was, but how she just wasn’t crazy about him. She’d dragged him into her drug mess and now he had a habit too and it kind of made her sick.

Scottie was in this awesome band called Catgut back then, and Gayle would get me on the guest list sometimes. I thought he was cute, but I was more interested in the drummer, this tall half-black guy with red dreadlocks down to his waist. Then one day Gayle and I stayed at the restaurant after work and sat at the bar getting smashed at happy hour. Gayle told me I’d be a better girlfriend for Scottie. I wasn’t a junkie and maybe I could appreciate him more than she could. She didn’t deserve him. I just laughed and told her she was drunk. But I started looking at Scottie. He definitely was sweet. I noticed how closely he listened when anyone talked to him, his head cocked and his eyes focused. He never got distracted. And I noticed how he treated Gayle, always bragging about her sculpture and always helping her on with her coat, like they’d just stepped out of some old fashioned movie. Gayle was right. She didn’t deserve him. Who knows—maybe she’d leave him and not care if he started dating me.

I didn’t have to wonder long because one night Gayle shot up too much coke and had a heart attack right there in the front seat of Scottie’s cab. I went to her funeral and saw Scottie standing in the back of the church. He left before it was over. People said all kinds of things about him after that—like he could have tried to save her life, he could have taken her to a hospital sooner. Scottie quit Catgut and disappeared. Someone said he was homeless, living out of his cab and shooting drugs around the clock.

Then in the spring I saw him in the magazine aisle of Tower Records. He said he had forty days clean and still missed Gayle like crazy. But he was getting better. We went down the street for coffee and I listened carefully as he told me all about rehab, all about recovery. When he talked about Gayle his eyes filled up.

It seemed like I ran into him all the time after that. I got his number and started calling him to meet me in the park. We’d sit side by side on a bench and eventually our knees were touching. Scottie’s hand was quivering when he put it on top of mine, and I remembered reading somewhere that grief made some people long for sexual release.

The thing was, I knew Scottie was confused at first, not sure whether it was me or Gayle he wanted, but I also knew he’d want me in the end. I’d make sure of that. And Gayle approved, right? Maybe she’d had a sixth sense that day we got drunk. Maybe she knew somehow that she was going to die and that her boyfriend should end up with me. So I got Scottie and he seemed to like me, to love me even, but I kept a close eye. I knew his past was always there.

In our early days I’d watch Scottie sleep. I’d watch him squeeze his eyes tightly and grind his teeth. I had to win him from the abrasions of his dreams. He had to want only me, not a needle or a corpse. I got attached. I knew then that I loved him, even though I wished I didn’t. It made me cruel. I’d pick on Scottie, at first in a teasing way, then seriously. His clothes, his band, his bathing habits. I couldn’t seem to stop, even though I could see how it hurt him. I moved in with him anyway.

The apartment was my prison. All our things existed together, and in the kitchen I could no longer remember which utensils belong to me and which belonged to Scottie’s dead girlfriend.

I thought for awhile that if I was happy with our apartment, I wouldn’t mind everything else. So I decided to redo the living room. I painted three walls cobalt blue with a sponge. I liked the way it looked, but I never painted the fourth because I went back to thinking I had to leave. I spray painted the refrigerator red and left a splash of bloody dots on the wall behind it.

Then Scottie’s sleep changed. He moved less and breathed more slowly. At first I thought I’d won. He’d forgotten about Gayle and heroin and was living only with me. But something told me that was too easy. Something else was going on.

I had a feeling about his backpack. I went right for it one morning, unzipped the outside pocket and there it all was, wrapped in toilet paper, syringe, bloody Wet-Naps and my spoon, my own fucking spoon, all nestled in as if they’d always belonged there.

I went nuts. I cried and then I told Scottie he was a piece of shit. It was something he was doing just to hurt me. I thought maybe I deserved it, for loving him for the wrong reasons. I begged him to quit. I knelt on the floor at his feet and he just sat there, looked at me through eyes half-closed and nodded away from me.

Then I just got used to it. It went from being this alarming, life-threatening thing—junkie boyfriend—to just a drag. I’m embarrassed by it much the way I’d be embarrassed if he were into NASCAR or bowling. It’s been months now, with him in the bathroom searching and poking at veins long gone and me standing in the doorway watching without feeling much. He is humiliated. He sits there on the toilet seat with an old belt between his teeth, his stubby fingers gripping the long thin syringe, poking and struggling. Time doesn’t move then, for either of us. I feel like he will always get high and I will always stand there.

Today I’m glad he’s at least sort of straight. I want him to get in the driver’s seat with this gas thing so I can get lunch and go to work.

“ The guy has to get in,” I say to him, nodding nonchalantly in the direction of the gasman. “I called ‘cause you have keys to Sharon’s.”

Scottie shrugs. He takes his baseball cap off and pulls his red and blonde curls forward, combing them with his fingers. His hair is greasy. “I did have keys,” he says, “but Sharon made me give them to Harry.” Our building is a revolving door of everyone’s new boyfriends and girlfriends. I’ve been here the longest, eight months, so I no longer feel like a visitor. It’s my building too.

“It’s cool anyway,” Scottie continues. “I’m glad you called me. You shouldn’t have to handle this alone. Besides,” he smiles, “I like getting to see you.” I smile back and it feels like shit.

We walk back across the street to lean against the cab and smoke cigarettes. In a minute, the gasman comes out of our building and runs towards us, flailing his arms.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” he yells.

Scottie and I both fling our cigarettes.

“No, not that,” the gasman says. “I mean the basement.” He’s standing there out of breath, and he’s got that sexy sweat again. “Somebody’s made a fucking bomb in the basement of your building—the whole thing could have gone any second! The whole block! Fuckin’ A—that’s the closest I’ve come to biting it since I took this job. I just hope I turned it off all the way. Everything down there is so mangled I could hardly see.”

A bomb. This makes me want to giggle, but I don’t. I sweat a kind of prickly sweat. Scottie stiffens—it’s like the heroin leaves his body all at once and now he’s totally straight.

The gasman goes to his truck to call the fire marshal. Scottie follows him to get the whole story, leaving me standing by the cab. He’s walking on the balls of his feet now, alive and alert. He stands at the door to the gas truck, his arms crossed above his head, leaning on the truck’s door. I can only see the back of him, how his body is tensing and shifting as he hears the gasman talk about what he saw in the basement.

“It’s true,” Scottie says, coming back to fill me in. “Somebody made a fine little bomb down there, cut open a gas pipe next to the hot water heater, busted the little door that holds the flame. It was all set up. It would have exploded.”

He holds me close and cups the back of my head with his hand. In a movie I would rest my cheek on his chest, but because we’re the same height, I can’t. I hang my chin over his shoulder for a minute. I can tell he’s trying to be protective. Part of me wants to like it. Part of me wants to be really scared about all this and just stay pressed against Scottie and let him take over.

But I’m not scared. A bigger part of me wants to just laugh. The whole bomb thing sounds too ridiculous. Nothing that dramatic ever really happens. It’s more likely that Sharon just let everything go to shit in the basement, let it all fall apart until by chance it resembled a bomb. There’s no bomb. There’s no intrigue, no reason for Scottie to save me.

But Scottie believes it. He’s hyped now, pacing the sidewalk in his giant black sneakers. “It was fucking Andrew,” he says, and I can tell he’s working up a good macho mood.

Andrew is Sharon’s ex-boyfriend, and he still owns half our building. He wants to buy her out but she refuses. So he does shitty things like getting the lights in the hallway shut off and having Sharon’s car towed.

Scottie hates Andrew. He’s sinking his jaws into Andrew as the bomber, and he’s not letting go.

“Fucking asshole,” Scottie says, whipping his baseball cap out of his back pocket and sliding it backwards on his head. “That’s it, that’s the last straw. We’re out of here.”

Scottie says “we” and I get that same prickly sweat as when I heard the word “bomb”. It clicks in my head that this is it. My big chance to be free. All I have to do is interrupt and say I don’t want to move in somewhere else together. I want to leave. I never thought it would be this easy.

I look around the street, big old buildings that used to be beautiful but are now half abandoned, bags of trash put out three days too early. It’s spring already, but you can hardly tell here because nobody on this block plants flowers. There isn’t even grass in most yards, just a muddy square. Except for the few trees with little leaves sprouting, it could still be winter.

Suddenly this whoosh of faintly warm air moves past me. It reminds me that it will soon be summer. I feel buoyant. I see how possible anything is in my life, any change, and I know I will soon be moving. I want to smile. But I know I need to stay cool and not let Scottie see how giddy I am.

So I am still. I watch Scottie pace some more and cuss about Andrew. I want to catch his eye. I want him to stop a second and take notice of me, see that something’s different and it will never be the same.

But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t notice. The gasman comes back from his truck and says the fire marshal is on his way to make a report about tampering with the gas line, which he thinks is a felony. He and Scottie are talking, legal stuff, pressing charges, police reports, and I’m just standing there.

I should open my mouth, even though Scottie wasn’t looking at me, and just say it. But I don’t. This will be a summer just like last summer, Scottie and me sweating to death up on the third floor and me dreaming of a way to fly. It was childish of me to think I could get away without a struggle.

I’m hungrier now than ever. I go over and look in the front of Scottie’s cab for a bag of chips or something. There are a lot of empty Mountain Dew cans. On the floor by the gas petal are a few empty dope bags. If I open the covered coffee cup sitting in the empty cup holder it will have water in it, not coffee, so Scottie can shoot up while he’s driving.

I look at my watch. I’m going to be late for work soon. Maybe I should call and say I’m not coming. I’ll tell them I’m having car trouble. I look over at Scottie. My fate. He’s standing next to the gasman. He’s a part of me, like my flesh, but I don’t know how that happened. I think of washing the clothes he’s wearing: the gray sweatpants with the drawstring that kept getting lost until I tied three knots in the end, the black T-shirt with the name of some cheesy nightclub written in flaking red paint. I always wash his clothes. He never washes mine. His clothes are always of soft cotton, often frayed. They are loose, especially now that he’s back on drugs. They smell like Downy and cigarette smoke, and when he’s pressed against me on the couch I can feel his bones through the softness. He’s always warm. When I hold him I get sleepy and sometimes I want to take a long nap with him and never be apart.

“Hey Scottie!” I shout. “I’ve got to get to work! I’m late!”

“Huh?” Scottie yells back. “No. No way, you can’t go.” He looks at me like I’m crazy. “The cops are coming and you have to give a statement and all that.”

Scottie doesn’t know about anything. He doesn’t know about the whoosh of warm air that almost set me free and left him alone. He’s just standing there waiting with the gas man, waiting for the cops, waiting for his regular life to start back up so he can move to a new shitty apartment on another filthy block, so he can keep shooting dope and be with me.

Scottie comes over and cups my face with his hands. His eyes are level with mine. “Aw’ babe,” he says. “You’re scared. I know you’re thinking how you could have come home a few minutes earlier and gone upstairs and blown up.”

I chuckle and a little snot comes out my nose. I never for a second thought I’d blow up. This block and this life will always be the same. I move my face out of Scottie’s hand and wipe my nose on my sleeve.

“We’re going to get through this,” he says. He hugs me and I realize he thought from the snot that I was starting to cry. I pull back and look at him.

I can’t deny that I love Scottie. In the almost year we’ve been together, I’ve become so used to him, all his ways. Even though I know I’m not meant to spend my life with him, leaving him will be hard.

I decide I should call the store and tell them I’m not coming in this afternoon. I’ll take Scottie’s cell and go around the corner to call. That way I can get something to eat. When I tell Scottie, he peels a twenty off a thick roll of bills in his pocket.

“Here babe,” he says and kisses me on the lips. “Get whatever you want.” I know he likes the gasman seeing him give me money, even though in reality he owes me because lately I pay all the bills. His money goes to heroin. I wave goodbye and Scottie goes back to talk to the gasman. I start walking away and turn back to look at them. Scottie looks so young next to the gasman, like a high school kid with his low-slung sneakers attached like big erasers. He doesn’t look like the boyfriend I thought I’d have at twenty-seven.

As I walk down the street to the 7-11, I smell cat piss and rotten meat. Maybe Scottie and I could work it out if we lived someplace better. This neighborhood is dragging us down. Maybe these smells and this garbage made Scottie start getting high again.

I know I’m pathetic. I’m selling out. I guess it’s the way I am. I take a lousy situation and make the best of it. I kind of hate myself when I see a picture of Scottie and me with a little house outside the city where I have a garden, of all things, and a hose outside so Scottie can wash the cab himself.

When I turn the corner away from my building, away from Scottie, there’s a deep rumble in the ground, and the sound of the explosion makes my heart thump wild and hard. I feel it in my stomach and out through my arms and legs. I stop right there on the sidewalk and listen for something else: Scottie yelling for me, my cat screaming as he flies through the window, the sound of car alarms going off for blocks. I hear none of these things, just my own heart beating in my ears, and I’m thinking there’s no apartment. I don’t live with Scottie anymore. Something has changed, really and finally, and even though I did nothing to deserve it, I am free. It was easy.

Julie Odell is an assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she is a member of the creative writing faculty. She is the faculty advisor of the award-winning student magazine Limited Editions. She has published short stories in the Berkeley Fiction Review and the Crab Creek Review, and is the recipient of a 2004 MacDowell Colony fellowship.

Richard the Third, the Second

The sofa or the bed?

Richard opens the door and finds Vickie on the sofa, watching TV. Disappointing.

“I aced the final,” he says.

He waits for her to say something. She doesn’t; she keeps both eyes on the TV. It’s a cable movie that she’s watching, one of those ones in which every five minutes the hero comes running toward the camera and then you see a big explosion behind him. Vickie hates them.

“Why are you watching this?” he asks.

“Why not?”

Vickie is cute, with long black hair, big green eyes, and nice hands. Since losing his position as King of England, Richard has learned many things, and one of them is that he is really very attracted to women with nice hands.

But Vickie’s best feature is her voice. It has a rich, warm, clear tone, deep and sexy. If she is standing behind him and speaks unexpectedly, he’ll shiver. Vickie doesn’t know it, but Richard once enjoyed a reputation as being hard-hearted—back in the old days he sent half of his extended family to their deaths so that he could be king—but one phrase from Vickie and he’s all tears, overwhelmed by beauty. On several occasions he has suggested that she exploit her gift by auditioning to narrate car commercials.

“ I think I aced the final,” he repeats.

“ Swell,” she says. She uses the remote to change channels.

“ Nineteenth-Century American Humor. Remember? Not that funny, actually. Lots of drinking and cruelty to animals.”

“ Uh huh.” She changes channels again.

He gives up, sits down next to her with his hands on his knees. In the past, he was mean and charming. Famous for it. He once dispatched several members of a woman’s family and then made a pass at her while she was tending to the coffins. Her name was Anne. Back then he had a hump, a limp, and a withered arm. He talked to Anne in such a crazy and insistent way that she agreed to meet him secretly. (Charming.) Later, he and Anne were married, but he soon found he needed to get rid of her for political reasons. Richard tried to let her down easy, giving her the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech, the “We’ve grown in different directions” talk, and promising they could still be friends. Then he executed her. (Mean.)

He looks at Vickie. She knows nothing about his past. She doesn’t even know he’s English—he’s worked hard to learn contemporary American diction and a flat, from-nowhere-in-particular kind of accent. His day job is selling paint and wallpaper. She’s a manicurist.

He takes the remote from her and mutes the sound on the TV.

“ Am I mean?” he asks.

She looks at him steadily. “No.”

“ How about charming?” He puts his head on her shoulder. “Am I charming?”

“ No.”

When he comes home from the final exam for his other class later in the week, Vickie is again on the sofa, watching TV. Vickie doesn’t live with Richard—she lives with her Mom—but she likes to be at his house when he comes home from night school. He gave her a key. Vickie says people Shouldn’t live together Before Marriage, that it represents a Half-Assed commitment to the relationship (Vickie tries to capitalize certain words when she’s talking, you can tell). She insists that he walk her home, no matter how late it is. It’s Only Two Blocks.

When Vickie started the habit of letting herself into his apartment, Richard didn’t mind—most of the time he’d find her naked on the bed when he returned. It has now been nineteen days since Richard has seen Vickie naked.

“ It’s been nineteen days since I’ve seen you naked,” he says. (Mean.)

“ You’ll Live.”

He throws down his textbook—The Experience of Poetry—near her feet. “Look. What’s wrong?”

She turns slowly towards the textbook. “I hope for your sake that that was not Aimed At Me.”

His immediate reaction is to apologize, but he hates it when she overdoes the capitalization, so he bites his tongue. Let her wonder.

She clicks off the TV. She stands. She puts her hands on her hips.

“ I’ve Decided,” she says.

“ Yes?”

“ I’ve decided I’m Not going to Waste My Life with someone who just works as a Clerk In A Paint Store.”

Time passes without anyone saying anything. Then Vickie turns and heads for the front door. She’ll walk home by herself.

Richard gets the last word: “It’s a Home Improvement Center.”

Mead. That’s the stuff. Hard to get nowadays, special order. The looks he gets at the liquor store. But he wants a sweet wine to get drunk on, and there’s nothing sweeter. Spiked honey.

His king days were long ago, but he hasn’t forgotten.

He takes another drink, this time straight from the bottle.

When you’re the King, even your enemies—men enemies, that is—treat you with respect. But not the women. No. Even the ones he charmed into bed ended up hating him. Possibly something to do with all the murders. Hey, he was God’s chosen representative, blah, blah, blah. Still, a propensity for the ruthless execution of innocents makes a guy hard to warm up to on a personal level.

What would he do without Vickie? The voice, the hands. He drinks a swig as a toast to Vickie’s hands, then changes his mind and drinks nine more swigs so that each of her fingers is honored separately.

When he stands to make his way to the bathroom, Richard wobbles and falls headfirst into the piano. The piano lid is up, and his head plays an ugly chord, which reverberates disagreeably in the air. Lying on his back beneath the keyboard, drunk and in pain, he feels an aside coming on:

Richard: At Bosworth I fell.

Laid at last upon the ground,

Undone, uncrowned, and unloved,

I bade Death drop her veil.

But even Hell would not have me;

Stabbed to death, I died not.

Mead hangover: not recommended. Richard awakes in the morning still under the piano, his head cradled by the sustain pedal. The underside of the keyboard when he opens his eyes looks to him like the dark wooden ceiling of the cell in which he slept for many decades, and for a minute he is fooled into thinking he’s back there, in the monastery, where he rose every morning to live his life happily unchanged while generations of monks around him aged and died.

He rolls over onto his face. The floor beneath him gyrates. He burps and tastes honey-flavored vomit.

“ Good morning, Your Majesty,” Richard says aloud.

After a minute, he manages to lift his head and survey the living room. It’s amazing how much damage one lovesick drunk can do. He should be careful—the furniture is not his. It came with the apartment. The piano, which Richard is learning to play now that his arms have become the same length, was included.

“ Richard of Gloucester shall rise again,” he says, and pulls himself to his feet using the piano for support. Then he runs to the bathroom and throws up.

After his stomach settles down, Richard checks the clock: five-thirty. Still plenty of time before he has to go to work, so he decides to take a bath. Although an innately adaptable creature, Richard is not yet able to warm up to a few modern inventions, including DVD’s, ball-point pens, and digital clocks, but he has grown to like the ease of simply turning a knob to run a bath—Americans clean themselves almost continuously, it seems, and Richard has taken up the habit.

Lying in the tub, he begins to feel the effects of the hangover lifting. He looks down at himself. His body is, well, beautiful. It’s still surprising to see it this way; he was misshapen for centuries. Not that he’s had any surgeries or anything—no, he couldn’t risk that. When Richard finally made it to America, it was his intention to keep a low profile, and simply live the exalted life of an average American citizen. Soon after landing here, however, almost from the first moment, he was wracked with various terrible pains in the ugly parts of himself—his withered arm, humped back, and spindly leg. An illegal immigrant, Richard lived on his savings for weeks in a cheap motel, writhing in agony, unsure what to do. Then he realized that his small, twisted arm was hurting so much because it was actually growing and untwisting. And his back was straightening, his weak leg getting stronger. From that moment, he welcomed the pain as a friend.

America was his cure.

His King of England days are long past, and his burning ambition to ruthlessly rule the entire civilized world ebbed away centuries ago. So the question now is: does he have enough drive left to achieve a more modest goal, say, becoming manager of the Home Improvement Center? And would that be enough to induce Vickie to stay with him?

Changing jobs is too risky to consider. As an illegal, Richard was fortunate to have been hired by Baron Paint and Wallpaper. The Human Resource Department (one semi-retired guy named Mel) just assumed Richard was American, and forgot to ask him for the paperwork required to prove it.

He thinks about how he got ahead in the old days. Back then, Richard had two brothers: Edward, who was king, and Clarence (called George—don’t ask why), who was next in line. What Richard did when he decided to usurp the throne was tell Edward, who was never, as they say, the sharpest knife in the drawer, that he, Richard, had had a dream, a dream in which Edward’s reign was to be ended by someone with the initial “G.” Technically, this was not a lie, since Richard was also called “Gloucester.” But Edward, superstitious, predictable Edward, made the leap Richard wanted him to, and had George drowned in a vat of wine. Richard moved one step closer to the throne.

The manager of the Home Improvement Center is named Paul Saddell. The assistant manager is named George (coincidence?) Krauth. When Richard arrives at work that morning, he immediately goes to Paul’s office and tells him he’s had an important dream.

“ What?” the manager says, blinking rapidly, looking at Richard as if he’s crazy.

The day has just started and Paul already seems exhausted. He’s a big old guy who doesn’t take wallpaper orders or mix paint colors or put away deliveries or wait on customers anymore. He just sits in his office and drinks coffee and talks on the telephone. At lunchtime, he opens one of the right-hand drawers of his desk and takes out takes a brown bag containing a tuna or peanut butter sandwich that his wife has made for him.

“ I said I had a dream last night, Paul. A dream in which your position is usurped by someone with the initial ‘G.’”

Paul stares, uncomprehendingly.

“ What does ‘surped” mean?”

“ Usurped. It means ‘taken away,’ you know, ‘stolen.’ I dreamt someone whose name begins with the letter ‘G’ is after your job.”

Richard lifts his eyebrows empathetically.

“ So?” Paul says. “I’m retiring next week anyway.”

Okay, the ouster of Paul was effected in an unintended way; that is, it wasn’t effected by Richard at all, but the result is the same—Paul is out, and Richard possibly one step closer to ascending the glorious throne of paint store—home improvement store—management. The logical person to replace Paul—provided no one is hired from outside the store—is, of course, George, the assistant manager. The remaining employees, Richard’s rivals for George’s soon-to-be-vacated assistant manager position, are Marshall, a jovial young man from the Cayman Islands, Vince, a college student more interested in flirting with the female customers than in selling them paint, and Sandra, a brassy lady who runs the wallpaper department.

Richard thinks he should be chosen over these other contenders, although they all, except for Vince, have about the same amount of experience. But Marshall is too laid-back, and Sandra too female—paint stores are one of the last places to hide if you’re a male chauvinist. The problem is that George will get to pick his new assistant, and George hates Richard.

George is a short, stout, doughy-looking man who suffers from that disease that makes people hairless. He has not one hair on his head, not even where his eyebrows should be. He’s in his late thirties, but still lives at home with his parents and older sister, and sleeps in the same bed he used as a kid. His resentment of Richard began the day six months ago when he returned to work after a family trip to Europe. George was showing the vacation pictures—twelve rolls worth—to his co-workers when Richard noticed that the photos were bereft of people. There were seventeen pictures of the outside of the gift shop at The Tower of London (Ah, memories!) but none showing a person going in or out. Richard made this observation out loud, meaning no harm, but everyone laughed, and George, deeply embarrassed, flushed a deep red and never forgave Richard, whom he seemed to half-like previously.

The following week, on his last day of employment, Paul is given a little party on the loading dock. Everyone sits around on five-gallon paint cans and drinks ginger ale out of Styrofoam cups. There’s a cake. There’s a picture of a paint can on the cake and the paint can has a little face and the little face has a speech balloon coming out of it that says, Good Luck, Paul!

The regional manager is there and he gives a speech. He talks about how Paul joined the company before he, the regional manager, was even born. He says that when he was first hired he used to see Paul throwing five-gallon cans of joint compound (62 pounds each) up on a loading dock one after another, for hours at a time.

Richard looks over at Paul, perched uncomfortably on a bulging plastic container of Latex Interior Primer, and tries to imagine him lifting something heavy. The regional manager has given Paul a gold watch, which he’s wearing; he took off the one he normally uses and put it in his pocket. In his right hand, pinched between two fat fingers, he holds the ornate crimson box the new watch came in. He doesn’t know what to do with it.

The regional manager continues his speech by pretending he wishes he could retire too, like Paul. He mentions golf. Richard looks at Paul again and tries to imagine him playing golf, and that picture seems even stranger than the one in which he lifts something heavy, and sad too.

At the very end of his speech, the regional manager announces that George will be the new store manager. Marshall will be the Assistant.

At the beginning of the following week, Paul is gone and George calls Richard into what is now his office. Richard does not feel well. Knowing Vickie’s mother was out of town—on a cruise—he tried to contact Vickie last night. He dialed her number repeatedly and listened to her shapely recorded voice tell him that she was currently Unable to Take his Call. The extravagant beauty of these vocalizations did not quite fully compensate for the ugliness of the fact they implied: Vickie was not, and continued not to be, at home. All night.

After Richard enters the office, George closes the door behind him. An awkward silence follows.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” Richard says at last.

“You’re fired,” George replies.

Richard knows he’s beaten. He rises, makes his way to the door, then stops when a thought occurs. Unlike most former kings of England, Richard of Gloucester is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“Wait a minute, George,” Richard says. “You can’t just fire me like that. You have to have provable cause for the union.”

George sighs. “You’re right. I’ll work on that.”

He puts his face close to Richard’s face. “In the meantime,” he says, “I want you to know you have no future here. I’ll get you out one way or another.”

Richard has spent centuries trying to eradicate every ounce of competitiveness and violence from his nature, partly to atone for the harm he caused earlier, and partly because it was a way to keep a low profile once he realized that—for whatever perverse reason—he was going to live an artificially long time. Now with George’s fat hairless face pressed within inches of his own, and the man’s hot yeasty breath fouling the air between them, Richard feels the return of his old impulses.

He looks around the office for a rapier.

Never one around when you need it.

“Get back to work, ” George says.

Richard knows he bought some time with his threat to go to the union, but also knows George will find a way to fire him if he really wants to; Richard will have to act quickly.

To achieve his kingly objective in the past (after Edward conveniently died), Richard and his pal Buckingham (his temporary pal—he had to kill Buckingham later) together engineered a stunt to have the Lord Mayor of London offer Richard the crown while behind the scenes Richard and Buckingham were discrediting some of the other candidates and beheading the rest. Well, in this case, Marshall was the next person in his way, but beheading Marshall wasn’t an option—it was too messy and hard to get away with in America’s “politically correct” climate. And he liked the fellow—liking the person you’re beheading, Richard found, always made it less fun. (Though it was true that Marshall had taken to his Assistant Manager duties with more crack-the-whip enthusiasm than Richard would have preferred or predicted.)

Lying in bed that night, unable to sleep because of back pain, Richard has an idea. Marshall speaks a suspicious amount of French for someone supposedly born in the Cayman Islands, which is, after all, a British colony. Speaking French is, or course, not uncommon in the Caribbean, but Richard has a feeling Marshall is not who he says he is. He’s probably another illegal hired by Mel.

Richard gets up, logs on his computer, and, after checking for E-mail from Vickie (without finding any), accesses the website for Homeland Security. There he gets an idea what the department’s letterhead looks like, and within a few hours he’s printed out a fairly persuasive-looking document addressed to the Baron Paint Store manager, containing such phrases as “Marshall Bodden, a person in your employ,” “investigation into illegal immigration,” “deportation,” and “prison sentence.” These phrases were meant for Marshall’s eyes alone; one of his new duties as Assistant Manager is to open the store mail.

Two days later, Richard looks up from mixing custom colors for a customer and sees the postman handing Marshall the mail. Richard thinks he spots the letter he sent—with its colorful stamp—in the stack.

“Oops,” Richard says. He was so intent on watching Marshall that he accidentally squirted four ounces of green colorant into the pink paint he was supposed to be making.

This gets the customer’s attention; people don’t like to hear the person making their expensive, non-returnable custom colors say “Oops.” Richard hammers the paint can lid closed, puts the can with the store’s other “Oops” paint, and starts over with a fresh can, the customer now hovering over his shoulder. After the cans are shaken, the customer insists that Richard open them and paint out samples to be certain all the colors match.

After the customer is finally satisfied and leaves, Richard goes over and peers into the store office to see if he can watch Marshall open the envelope he sent. But Marshall is not there. Richard enters and examines the stack of mail, which was left on the desk. About half the envelopes are opened; the one he sent is missing.

Richard surreptitiously searches the store premises. Marshall is not on the loading dock, not in the bathroom, not in the ladder room.

He’s gone.


Two days later, George approaches Richard as he is putting away stock and says, “I guess Marshall’s never coming back, so I’m making you my Assistant Manager. On an interim basis. Understood?” He walks away before Richard can reply.

That night, Richard dials Vickie’s number again. Normally, he just listens to her lovely, lovely recorded voice telling him I’m out screwing someone else (not literally—it’s implied) and then hangs up without saying a word. Tonight, at the tone, he speaks: “I got promoted,” Richard says.

The machine declines to respond.

Richard took pleasure in forcing George to promote him right after threatening to fire him, but knows he isn’t out of danger yet. His elevation was the result of there being no other credible candidate—Vincent was simply too young and Sandra wouldn’t have taken the job even if it were offered, as she liked being, as they called her, “The Queen of Wallpaper.”

Richard waits two days to hear Vickie’s reaction to his promotion. Then he waits one more day. Then he walks over to her house at night and peers through the blinds. No one is home.

As he walks slowly back to his apartment, Richard again tries to think of a way to get rid of George. It is enjoyable to have such a specific goal once more, to again revel in the ecstasy of good hate, but he is paying a price: within the last fortnight all of his famously bad parts began aching anew, his strong back bending, his flawless arm furling, his thick leg shriveling. He’d better eliminate George before it is too late. If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly, he tells himself, knowing well he is thinking of the wrong play.

Two nights later, Richard dials Vickie’s number and someone answers. It’s her mother, back from the cruise.

“Is Vickie home?” he asks.

“You know she isn’t.”

“Where is she?”

“On her honeymoon,” Vickie’s mother says, and hangs up.

Her honeymoon?

Richard looks for the mead.

An hour later, the ghosts appear. These are same ghosts who appeared to him before he fought at Bosworth, and periodically after that for the last five hundred years. They’ve pretty much lost their power to frighten over that span, but they haven’t given up.

Enter the ghost of Prince Edward.

Richard: Here we go.

Prince Edward: Let me sit heavy on thy soul!

Richard: Sez you.

Enter the ghost of Henry the Sixth.

Henry the Sixth: My anointed body by thee was punched full of deadly holes!

Richard: Yeah, and?

Enter the ghost of Clarence.

Clarence: Let me sit heavy on thy soul!

Richard: Can’t. Edward’s already sitting there.

Enter the ghosts of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn.

Ghosts: Despair and die!

Richard: Who are you, the Three Stooges?

Enter the ghost of Lord Hastings.

Lord Hastings: Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake!

Richard: Not really. I was watching Conan O’Brien.

Enter the ghosts of the two young princes.

Ghosts: Let us be lead within thy bosom Richard, and weigh thee down to ruin, shame, and death!

Richard: You and what army?

Enter the ghost of Marshall.

Marshall: Yo, Rich! Why’d you do me like that?

Richard: Marshall?

Marshall: I never did you no harm.

Richard: But…you’re not dead.

Marshall: Yes, I am. I was fleeing ’cause of your phony letter and blew out a tire on I-95 while going eighty.

Richard reaches for the bottle.


Richard awakes under the piano again. This time he is not fooled into thinking he’s back at the monastery—no happy feeling asserts itself, even for a second. Marshall’s death, as Clarence would have it, sits heavy on his soul.

Five hundred years. Five hundred years he’s lived virtuously, hoping to redeem his place in heaven, but now he’s ruined it, fallen back into his old ways. For the love of a manicurist.

Richard sits up. He feels awful, and not just because of the sick, dehydrating mead hangover. His arm, his leg, his spine: all have reverted to their original twisted state.

The army surplus store.

“Do you have a rapier?”

“What? A rapier?” the man says.

“Yes. You know, a slender, two-edged sword with a cup-like hilt.”

“Well…we have some swords in the case over there. Look, you’re not planning to stab anybody, are you?”

“Just my boss,” Richard says. “Through the eye. Out the back of his fat skull.”


“I’m kidding,” Richard says. “It’s for a play I’m performing. Richard the Third. Do you know it?”

In the end, Richard chooses not to purchase a sword. Too conspicuous to walk around with these days. Instead, he buys a more easily concealed blade called a tanto, a foot-long Japanese knife used—as the clerk cheerfully explains—in the disemboweling suicide ritual called seppuku. That’s the advantage of multiculturalism—weapons from all over the world.

Richard, blade secreted beneath his coat, limps into his workplace. Sandra is there.

“Rich. What happened? You’re all bent over.”

“I was sent before my time into this breathing world, scare half made up.”


“Back spasms. I took an Advil. Is George in yet?”

“In the office.”

When Richard reaches the doorway of the office, he finds George on his knees, paying homage to the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, his precious fat hairless bulging neck rather obligingly displayed for beheading.

George is oblivious to the presence of Richard, who draws his knife, wishing he had gone for a full sword instead of the shorter blade. The tanto is for stabbing.

Richard raises the blade high, preparing to bring it down on George’s neck with all the force he can muster. He pictures the manager’s noggin severing cleanly, spinning for a moment in the air, then dropping—a surprised look still on the face—into the open cabinet drawer, which, impelled by the momentum of the head, slams shut with a satisfying thunk. Richard imagined leaving it there, filed under “W,” for “Who ain’t got no head?”

Richard’s brief reign as king of England ended when his army was defeated by Richmond’s at Bosworth. The main problem was motivation. Richmond’s army was willing to lay down their lives for what they saw as a just cause; Richard’s army was comprised largely of mercenaries. Money and glory are no match for righteousness.

Richard walked away from the office and hid the tanto, unused, behind a display of extension poles. His current quest for paint store power was over. There would be no beheadings, no poisonings, no drownings in vats of wine. His motivation was gone.


That voice. Nearly a year has passed since he heard it.

Richard turns to find Vickie behind him in a movie line. She’s with her mother, who gives Richard a dirty look. No husband in sight.

“Vickie. How are you? I heard you got married.”

She says nothing, but waves a hand under his nose. The ring is nice; the hand is nicer. Richard nods.

“Here alone?” Vickie’s mother asks.

“No. She went back to get something from the car.” This is a lie. He is alone.

“You look well,” Vickie says. This is true—Richard’s body returned to its ideal shape once he let his ambition die.

“You too,” he says, and this is also true. In fact, Vickie is fairly glowing with health, beauty, and happiness.

When Richard’s turn comes, he buys two tickets, then steps aside as if waiting for his date to re-appear. Vickie and her mother take their turn and Vickie forces her mother to go inside without her so she can talk to Richard some more.

“I never properly explained,” she says. “Steve was someone I knew for a long time. When he came back into my life, I felt I had to make a choice.”

Richard nods.

“Are you all right?” she asks.

“I’ll survive,” he says. “I always do.”

She kisses him on the cheek, then goes inside.

He watches her go, watches the door glimmer as it settles into place. Soon he feels another aside coming on:

Richard: Wed new to another, made beautiful by bliss,

Her voice singing his name, her hands entwined with his!

Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?

Was ever a woman in this humor won?


James W. Morris was born in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and LaSalle University, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published numerous short stories in literary magazines, and for a time worked as a joke writer for Jay Leno. Lately, he has turned his hand to playwriting, and his first play, Rude Baby, was produced earlier this year by The City Theater Company of Wilmington, Delaware.