Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mascot, Chapter Twelve: Nerve Endings

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Nerve Endings

Zelda wakes to the sound of faraway footsteps. And a hand on her shoulder. It’s Edward.

“Hate to bug you, but the joggers have made their appearance.”

She blinks her eyes. The sky resembles a beige bedsheet. This would be the inside of Edward’s tent.

“Oh. Right.”

“Hope you’re feeling okay.”

Zelda pulls to her knees and conducts a cat-stretch. “Sure. Why?”

Edward scratches his temple. “I figured you must have gotten pretty drunk last night.”

Zelda looks him in the eyes. “Not at all.”

Her answer seems to make Edward uncomfortable. “Well… if you wouldn’t mind, um, I need to stash the tent.”

She settles on a flat rock as Edward conducts his morning ritual, rolling up the tent and sliding it into one of the buried cans. Zelda feels fuzzy from the lack of sleep, but the unfamiliar setting is enchanting. Fingers of fog climb the canyon, teasing the top of a eucalyptus. She peers upriver and sees the pillars of a long-ago bridge, like a mirage in the gray light.

Edward kicks leaves over the lids, then walks over to Zelda. “I don’t even know if I should ask this, but… why did you come here?”

Zelda forces her brain into a cold idle. “Okay, I… I went on a date last night. It wasn’t just that it was such a comically bad evening. It was that he was so utterly focused on his own life and his own problems that… Have you ever seen one of those plastic balls that they use for hamsters so they can walk around the room?”

“Um, okay. Yeah.”

She unfurls a hand, palm to the sky. “Like that.”

“Ferdy’s a hamster.”

“Ferdy’s a… Hey! How did you…”

“Got my sources.” Edward cups his chin, the wise-man pose. “Well. Keep in mind we’re all self-centered. That is our prime reality.”

“Yes,” says Zelda. “But most of us have feelers that reach beyond the surface of our skin to make an attempt, at least, to understand other people.”

“Okay. Yes. But empathy is a conscious intention. A discipline. You have to practice it.”

“And when you spend all your time practicing a wicked slider, not so much time for empathy.”

Edward chuckles. “I think you’re on to something.”

Zelda sighs theatrically. “Yes! And so, after I escaped the owner of the wicked slider, I wanted desperately to be with a practitioner of the art of empathy. And I remembered standing in the courtyard, talking like a vicious, crazy bitch about a man who did not in any way deserve my insults. And this man’s response was to buy the vicious, crazy bitch some licorice, because he thought she might be upset.”

“Not entirely true,” says Edward. “For the first three minutes I was actually pissed off at the vicious, crazy bitch…”

“Aha!”

“Yeah. You caught me. But then the rational mind takes over, you jettison the ego, you tell yourself, Self, you are a fucking freak, and Zelda, who is most times very kind to you, is clearly upset over this Zarita/Jackson thing. She is the businessman who’s been yelled at by the boss, and you are the unfortunate cocker spaniel who has greeted him at the door.”

Zelda smiles. “That’s the discipline.”

Edward bows. “I am the sensei of empathy.” He takes a circular stroll in the grass, like a lawyer summing up. “Listen. Empathy can be overdone. I spent three years watching my wife’s body consume itself. If I could have hacked off my arm and gotten her body to eat that instead…” He wipes an eye and laughs. “There’s your evidence. Even now…” He turns to the eastern hillside, taking breaths, slapping a hand against his side. “So god… damn tired of this. Maybe that’s why I got so disconnected. It’s hard to be around people who are suffering, and when you’ve turned yourself into a near-psychic empath, a fucking sponge of pain… it’s… impossible.

“But then one day there’s your friend Jackson. A lot of friends would have taken a look at the raggy clothes and the hollowed-out eyes and said, Don’t want anything to do with that. Might be contagious. Might drag me down with him. Not Jackson. The man refused to let me sink. And he gave me a secret identity. He gave me a big gorilla who loves everybody excepting Dodger fans. And then this beautiful barista comes to the stadium, and Gigante does things that Edward couldn’t possibly do. And it’s weird, but I am so thankful that you got hurt.”

Zelda laughs. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”

Even twenty feet away, she can see Edward shaking, fuzzy at the edges, like a time traveler about to flash into a different century.

“Because… you got… better.”

The word is consumed by whisper, and Edward begins to crumble. Zelda closes the distance and wraps him up, sending feelers into his body. A discipline. A conscious intention.



Zelda is aware that she has done a dangerous thing, that she has exposed Edward’s long-cauterized nerve endings. They walk their bikes in silence through the gray morning, under the low-hanging branches, around Lake Vasona, behind the backyards of Campbell. As the trail is about to duck under Campbell Avenue, Edward takes a rightward ramp toward the sidewalk.

“Where are you going?” asks Zelda.

“Oh. I was going to wait for you at the coffeehouse.”

“No. I want you to come to my apartment.”

“Oh. Okay.”

They follow the trail past the Campbell Inn and up a footpath to Zelda’s stairwell. She lifts her bike and carries it up; Edward follows suit.

“Out here,” she says. “You can leave it on the balcony.”

When he re-enters, she hands him a towel featuring the Disney character Goofy.

“Sorry. It’s the only clean one I’ve got. I’m not working till one today, so take your time, scrub yourself silly. I’m going to take a little nap.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

Zelda curls up on the couch. She tries to sleep, but she hears the water gaining power in the bathroom. She has this thought: the other thing you can do for exposed nerve endings is to give them something to feel. She stands up and removes her jacket. She takes a step and removes her blouse. She runs out at the bathroom door. She reaches for the knob. It’s unlocked.


Photo by MJV

Shape Poem: Being Francis

By Michael J. Vaughn

Monday, March 23, 2015

Shape Poem: Break

By Robert Pesich and Michael J. Vaughn
First published in Slow Trains Literary Journal

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mascot, Chapter Eleven: The Uh-Oh Switch

Buy the book at Amazon Kindle.



The Uh-Oh Switch

The next two days are an empty space in which Zelda’s thoughts are allowed to fester and grow horns. Edward is absent. Jackson and Zarita are probably off fucking. The Giants are in Lancaster playing the Jethawks. It could be that Gigantina has given her final performance. Zelda realizes that she’s being a morose bitch, but history is on her side. When the two Z’s are out in public, humans of the male persuasion flock to Zarita’s leggy figure and exotic eyes. Zelda turns into wallpaper.

“Hi!”

It’s a cute guy – a little adolescent-looking, but at this point she’s looking for a liferope. He’s got unsettling green eyes and a smattering of freckles that give him a countrified air.

“Oh, yeah. You might not recognize me. I’m out of uniform.”

“Are you a cop?”

Freckleface snickers. “I’m a pitcher. The last time we talked, you were bleeding from your nostrils.”

“Oh!”

“Ferdy. Ferdy Nash.” He shakes her hand over the counter. “And your name is Gigantina?”

Now it’s her turn to snicker. “No. Zelda.”

“I love your work, Zelda.”

“Wait a minute. Why aren’t you in Lancaster?”

“Bone chips in my elbow. I’m having surgery. How cool is that?”

“Really?”

“Hellz yeah! All the big pitchers get surgery. Besides, it’s pretty basic. I’ll be back in four weeks. Although it does hurt like a moth… like a son-of-a-gun.”

Zelda likes the fact that he amended his swear word. “So what would you like, Ferdy?”

“I’d like a Cuppa DiMaggio, and I’d also like to take you to dinner.”

Zelda feels the heat rising into her face. Zarita walks through the door, wearing a bad-puppy expression.

“Hi, Z. Jackson said you might talk to me. I am so sorry.”

Zelda feels herself turning into wallpaper.

“Um, I have a customer,” she says. “Can you wait outside? I’ll be right out.” She angles her head toward the courtyard, hoping it might convey her secret message.

“Oh, come on,” says Zarita. She turns to Ferdy. “Hi, I’m Zarita. I’m here to apologize to my closest friend because I’ve been a total jackass. Hey! You’re Ferdy. Man, you’ve got one hell of a slider. Makes those hitters look like idiots. How come you’re not in… Hey!”

Zelda has circled the counter and is now pushing Zarita out the door. She speaks in a forced whisper.

“Are you fucking clueless? He’s asking me out! Do you have to steal every guy in the universe? Jesus!”

Zarita’s shocked expression melts into tears.

“No!” says Zelda. “None of that shit. Just leave me alone.”

“But I just wanted to…”

“Go! Now!”

Zarita lets out a whimper and walks away. Zelda takes a breath, straightens her apron and returns to the coffeehouse, where Ferdy is wearing a look of great amusement.

“A taskmaster! I think I like that.”

Zelda has a few seconds, as she’s circling the counter, to consider her next move. She concludes that her only way out is honesty.

“You ever have a friend who just… gets in your way?”

“Oh, I get you. A blocker. Yeah. My catcher, Marty. I’m chatting up some chick in Stockton, and he comes up and wants to talk about pitchouts. Clue. Less.”

Zelda smiles and leans forward. “So, you’d like a Cuppa DiMaggio, and…”

Ferdy takes a moment to pick up his cue. “Ah! Yes. You, me, dinner. Tonight. Sorry to be so short-notice, but I’m going under the knife tomorrow and… mmph!”

Zelda covers his mouth. “Yes.”

She removes her hand and Ferdy laughs. “Fantastic. You know a good place? I’m not up on the local scene.”

“I’ll think of something. Meet me here at seven?”

“Sure.”

“Good. Have a seat. I’ll get you that DiMaggio.”



“So at this point I’ve got him completely set up. He’s leaning out over the plate, looking for the slider, and I wing a cutter over the inside corner. And the thing is, he smiles. I got mad respect for a guy who can get beat like that and just laugh at it.”

Ferdy leans back in his wicker chair and sips at a strawberry margarita. Zelda takes a bite from her chile relleno and scans the dark interior of El Burro. They’ve placed little faux balconies up high to give it the air of a Mexican village. It’s always been one of her favorite places. Sadly, her date is boring the shit out of her. Taken individually, his stories are fairly interesting, but they never, never stop. The man remembers every awesome pitch he ever threw, which leaves little room in his brain for anything else – including, apparently, any curiosity about his date.

Zelda has always imagined a tiny switch in the brain – she calls it the Uh-Oh Switch – that alerts the owner to the fact that he is rambling on about mundane shit, and that his listener’s eyes are glazing over.

“Then there was the worst-case scenario. Playoffs, last year. Bases loaded, no outs, we’re up by one. Boski gives me the sign that he’s putting me in. Thanks a lot, right? Two pitches. Two. The first a comebacker, home-to-first double play. The second was a weak pop-up to third. Fucking bee-yoo-tiful.”

He cups his chin and relishes the memory. Zelda jumps in.

“Hey Ferdy, you want to get a drink?”

He raises his glass. “Got one.”

“I mean, you know, in a bar.”

“Sure! Let’s scoot.”



Jackson’s at his favorite table with his new girlfriend, and already he’s questioning the wisdom of having a girlfriend, period. Zarita has been bent out of shape all day, and it’s bumming him out. But then she looks at him with those dark eyes, and he understands. He’s whipped. He’s a prisoner.

“I just don’t know why she had to be so rude about it! I wanted to apologize. I wanted to make good. And she sends me away like a naughty girl!”

She pouts those lips at him and he is further enslaved. But he’s got to do something. This thing with Zelda is going to ruin them before they even get started.

“Zarita? Think about this. When you and Zelda are out in public, who do the men hit on?”

She twitches her lips. “Me. God, it’s so annoying. They’re so obnoxious.”

“That’s not how Zelda sees it. Zelda thinks, How am I going to get any attention standing next to this goddess?”

Zarita smiles. “Nice try. But that is so not true. Zelda loves me.”

That’s why she doesn’t tell you. But it’s true. Zelda has a blue-collar kind of hotness. But you, my dear, when you enter a room all the guys stop breathing.”

She smiles so sweetly that he’s about to leave his body. So he keeps talking.

“She held this in until the attention given to Zarita the Beautiful finally got too much. When she found you making out with a guy she used to have a crush on, she blew.”

Zarita looks down at the table. “Oh.”

“And tell me. This afternoon, when you went to apologize, what was Zelda doing?”

“I don’t know, talking to some guy. Oh! Ferdy. One of our pitchers. She said he was going to ask her out, but you know how she is. She overinterprets and gets her hopes up, and then…”

“Oh my god,” says Jackson. “You women are fucking horrible. The truth is, she had a chance with this guy – and even if she didn’t have a chance, it was your duty to back the hell off and let her operate.”

Zarita wags her finger. “That’s that thing you guys do. That code.”

“That’s the thing we do best.” He looks toward the door. “Well what the hell…”

Zarita follows his glance. “Zelda! I’ll go talk to her right… Hey!”

Jackson grabs her by the belt and pulls her back. “You will do no such thing. Watch.”

Ferdy enters, shows his ID to the bouncer and follows Zelda to the bar.

“He’s adorable!” says Jackson.

“Okay, okay,” says Zarita. “I get it.”

“’Bout time.”

“But I hope I get to see her soon. I miss her.”

“Have faith,” Jackson whispers. “Let her operate. You’ll get your chance.”

“Okay.”



Three beers later, things are not improving. Ferdy is sinking into a morose ball of wussiness.

“What if they go in there and it’s worse than they thought? You don’t know how it is, Zelda, the constant pressure. One bad injury and you’re toast! And I don’t know anything else. What would I do if I didn’t play baseball?”

He wipes a hand over his face, then winces and grabs his elbow.

“I’ll be right back,” she says, and heads for the restroom. She’s washing her hands when Zarita walks in.

“Hi,” she says. “How’s it going?”

Zelda stares at her, then crumbles into laughter. “Fucking horrible. Oh my god, first he tells me about every great pitch he ever threw in his life, and now he’s about to start crying over his elbow surgery. Is this how a guy goes about impressing a chick?”

Zarita smiles. “Guys are fucking narcissists.” She cultivates a crafty look. “Want to get rid of him?”

“God yes!”

“You got it.” She punches a text into her phone. “What we need… is a superhero.”

“Like Gigante?!”

“Exactamundo.” The phone buzzes back. She smiles. “Okay. Let’s wait a few more seconds… and then…” She peeks outside. “Okay. We’re good.” She takes Zelda’s hand and leads her into the courtyard.

Jackson heads to the bar, pretends to read the list of ales, then leans into the gap next to his target.

“Hey! Ferdy, right?”

“Umm, yeah?”

“I’m Jackson. You might know me better as Gigante.”

“Yeah!” says Ferdy. “Weirdest thing. I just had dinner with your dance partner.”

“Hey, sorry to hear about your elbow. They’re really gonna miss you in the pen.”

“You think so?”

Oh yeah. Come on, you’re the sharpest lefty we’ve got.”

The two Z’s head off across the parking lot, giggling at their escapade.

“You think he’ll even notice?” asks Zelda.

“Not with Jackson shoveling BS at him. That boy can talk baseball for days.”

At the mention of Jackson the two fall silent, their heels clip-clopping the asphalt.

“You’ve got a good guy there,” says Zelda.

“Yes. And he set me straight on a few things. Like being a better wingman. Wing-woman?”

“Come on, you did an excellent job just now, as far as getting rid of guys. Maybe later you can work on gettin’ me one.”

Zarita laughs.

“Oh, Z,” says Zelda. “I’m an idiot. You can’t help it if you’re so fucking gorgeous.”

Zarita smiles. “Thank you. I think. I’ll try harder not to be a vaj-blocker.”

Zelda stops. “I’m sorry. What?”

“I just made it up.”

“I may steal that sometime. I… You and Jackson, I got a good feeling about that.”

“Do you?”

“It’s just that it was, you know, kind of a shock. A blow to the ego.”

Zarita looks at her. “I was so worried about hurting you.”

“It’s okay. Friends?”

“The best.”

Zelda puts her hands on her hips. “So is this where we do the clichĂ© movie thing and…”

Zarita attacks her with a hug. “Yes!”

Zelda laughs. “Well okay then.”



An hour later, Zelda knows that she is nowhere near sleeping. She’s on her balcony, smoking a joint, when she spies the ribbon of asphalt below, and the seldom-used mountain bike locked to the railing.

The trail at night is a little spooky, and a little beautiful. Zelda cruises downhill under the San Tomas Expressway and hears the burble of pigeons. Passing the percolation ponds, she sees the hunched silhouettes of cormorants on the power lines. She circles Vasona Reservoir, which looks like a Parisian park in the moonlight, and crosses the main drag of downtown Los Gatos, empty but for one staggering barfly.

The tricky part is crossing the creek, but she solves this by sinking the bike wheels into the water and using it for support as she targets the stepping stones. She calls Edward’s name as she approaches so as not to cause an alarm. She drops the bike to the ground; Edward pokes his head from the tent.

“Zelda?”

She kneels next to the opening.

“Hi. Can I…?”

She doesn’t finish. Edward opens the flap and she crawls inside.


Photo by MJV 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Shape Poem: Election Day 2000

By Michael J. Vaughn
Find out more about shape poems in Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mascot, Chapter Ten: Deciphering the Code


Buy the book at Amazon Kindle. 

Deciphering the Code

Three days later, there has been no Zarita, no baseball, no dancing at the stadium. Edward is back to his old self, hunched over his laptop. Zelda is finding it hard to get through work, all these pointless exchanges of cash for beverages. Hot water poured over beans. The calendar ticks closer to the Fourth of July, and it tortures her to think of watching fireworks by herself.

She’s dawdling with the credit machine, straightening the roll of paper, when a customer bursts through the door, giving off the energy of a small parade. It’s Jackson.

“Hi Edward. Hey Courtney, could you be a doll and cover for Zelda while I take her for a walk?”

Courtney prepares to deliver her trademark death stare, but in the face of Jackson’s smile she is powerless.

“Sure.”

“Thank you. Zelda?”

Zelda would also like to rebel, but she faces a different temptation: the chance to have a juicy argument with one of her betrayers. She circles the counter and pushes through the door. She is already at the far side of the courtyard when Jackson catches up with her.

“So here’s the thing. I’m trying to understand why you’re so angry.”

They pass a bakery called Sugar Butter Flour.

“Codes, Jackson. Codes! I just screwed you a month ago, and my best friend moves right in? Not cool!”

They turn past the Rock Bottom Brewery.

“Okay. I would get that, if we had something serious going on. I hate to remind you, but you screwing me was a case of mistaken Gigantes.”

El Burro, white adobe arches, a field of black tables.

“And what did you do,” says Zelda, “when you found out you were screwing the object of your best friend’s affections? You stopped. You followed The Code.”

Jackson pauses. “Ah. Good point.” They pass Gemcraft and Diamonds. He taps his forehead. “Okay. Think about this. The Code isn’t really about sex. It’s about feelings. I didn’t have feelings for you. And you didn’t have feelings for me, because I wasn’t the Gigante who wrote you the poem, who flirted with you at the stadium.”

Zelda stops in front of Marshall’s and pushes the heel of her hand against her temple. She speaks through gritted teeth. “No, I had feelings for you because every time you came to the cafĂ© you lit up the fucking room.”

She keeps going, past Pacific Catch. Jackson pursues.

“Jesus. I’m sorry. But the thing is, all that time I had a thing for Zarita.”

Zelda raises her hands to the heavens. “Oh! This just gets better and better. So if you had a thing for Zarita, why the hell did you screw me?”

“Because you’re hot, and you were throwing yourself at me, and because I’m a chickenshit.”

“About what?”

“Zarita! She’s educated, she’s got this serious job. And I make my living in a fucking monkey suit. So instead of the girl I wanted, I went with the girl who wanted me.”

“You are such a man.”

They cross the parking lot of the Doubletree Hotel.

“Look,” says Jackson. “I thought you were happy doing the dance thing with Edward. I thought everything was clear now. Zarita didn’t want to go out with me, she was worried about you. But I talked her into it.”

They take a left and proceed along a wall of orange stucco.

“She really misses you. She’s embarrassed, and ashamed, and you’re the only one who can set this straight.”

“Oh!” says Zelda. “So you two throw shit all over me, and it’s up to me to clean up the mess. Isn’t that a fucking birthday party?”

Lisa’s Tea Treasures.

“Look,” says Jackson. “If I bought into all your ethical codes and standards, I would make it easy on everyone and just break up with her. Problem being, I care about her, and you two are the closest friends I know, and you belong together, and no one’s going to be happy until you give her a call and offer her the chance to grovel.”

They enter the courtyard.

“Besides,” says Jackson. “You’ve got Edward.”

Zelda stops at a map of the shopping center. “Oh, I see how this works. Zarita gets you, and I get the freak! I get the special case, the hobo who lives by the river because he’s so fucked up he can’t even live inside like normal people. I’m sorry, I don’t do losers, I don’t do mental cases. So take your friend Edward and kindly insert him up your ass!”

Zelda expects some sort of rebuttal, but Jackson is looking at a spot behind her, where Edward is standing next to his bike. He stares, expressionless, then turns and walks away.

“Edward!” Zelda calls, but it’s too late, he’s already past the corner. “Oh, Edward.”



A half-hour later, Zelda is making the rounds of the garbage bags, ready to end her shift and join Jackson at Boswell’s for a much-needed drink. She pulls a new bag around the rim and turns to find Edward, standing there with a shopping bag.

“Edward! Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

“Why?”

“Well those… those things I said.”

Edward gives a wry smile. “Did you say anything that wasn’t true?”

“So you’re… you’re not mad?”

“Nope.”

“Then why did you run off?”

“I was worried about you. And I couldn’t find any at Trader Joe’s, so I had to go across the street to the drug store.”

He hands her the bag. Inside is a box of Red Vines. Zelda drops them and gives Edward a hug.

“That’s the kind you like, right?”

Zelda laughs.


Photo by MJV

Shape Poem: Escort

By Michael J. Vaughn
First published in Many Mountains Moving
Find out more about shape poems in Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity.