Short Fiction

Boychik Luis and Bubbe Bev

Luis was fascinated by stories of the 70’s.  Actually he was just recently fascinated by the stories of his older cousin Laz, a fledgling drag performer who was trying out a different persona loosely based on a cross between Liza Minnelli and Eartha Kitt (stage name: Eartha Liza).   But a fifteen and a half year-old boy with a Puerto Rican mom and a Jewish dad spending part of the summer in the suburbs of NJ with his bubbe didn’t think he’d see much cross-dressing action down at the local Dunkin’ Donuts.  As a matter of fact, the only action happening at the DD consisted of locals of all ages giving him the stank eye while he ate his Boston cream with an extra sweet black coffee.   OK, maybe they could hear the tinny tone of 70’s disco through his headphones, but what better way to wake the funk up and greet the day?

Not having a car (and being too young to drive it) was a bit of a bummer.  At least his cousin would take him around to the fabric shops and beauty supply stores of North Bergen to get the shit to make his costumes.   Laz was as cool and smart as any of those people on Project Runway or Ru Paul’s Drag Race.   His grandmother tried to make it nice for him and all, and he appreciated her efforts, but what did she know about being (almost) sixteen? Even though she raised his Dad,  Luis couldn’t picture that specific Mother/Son dynamic.   But she was pretty active for an old lady:  doing water aerobics over at the JCC and playing cards with her old lady friends.  And it seemed to Luis that in a lot of ways these old ladies were way more open to enjoying themselves in general.

Grandmother and grandson bonded over late-night TV in her little frosty den.  Seems both the elderly and the young had a hard time sleeping.  So they took to watching recycled sitcoms together, sharing vigorous commentary about the hairstyles, fashion trends and hip slang of the period.   Bubbe had some real street cred considering she lived though these olden times herself.    But last night there was a warmed-over, 1981 re-make  of Valley of the Dolls on which generated discussion among the pair about how much better the book was versus this particular screen interpretation.

“Ugh, even the trash was better in the 60’s,” said Bubbe Bev.  “The downfall of a civilization is when a generation can’t even make it’s own trash.  Look at them — they had to recycle the 60’s to make this crap. Not that these reality shows are much better.  Ack, who needs all these Housewives and the Snookie, already?  America’s Got Talent?  What is that?”

Luis gave this some critical thought as Bev left the room propelled by a snort of disgust big enough to land her into bed.  He had enough summer left to make a cursory review of popular culture.  “Cursory” being the operative word for an ADD- addled adolescent, bi-curious boy sentenced to two plus weeks with his grandmother because his parents didn’t trust him enough to leave him home alone. He stayed up to watch the unsatisfying conclusion.

One thing Luis enjoyed while staying with Bev was the complete lack of routine.  Bev was a late sleeper, at times sleeping way past Luis.  There was even one morning when he grew worried enough to go check on his bubbe, and was comforted by her gentle snuffle when he cracked opened her door at 11:30 A.M.  But today Bev was up early — before 10:00 A.M, and she was wrapping up her third cup of coffee and the newspaper Jumble mind-teaser when Luis shuffled into the kitchen.

“Good morning, boychik.  I’m going to the library for the free “Movie Morning” today.  They’re showing The Producers.  You know that Mel Brooks reminds me of your grandfather.  So funny, that one,” her sentence trailed off a tad wistfully.  “Want to come or just meet me and we’ll go get a bite after?”

Maybe Luis wasn’t awake enough yet to comprehend that “going with” meant he would be either sitting in the dark, chilly library rec room with the seniors or in the quiet of the library proper, but he shrugged and head-bobbled a “sure.”   Within the next half hour was dressed, charged up and riding shotgun in Bev’s couch-like Buick LeSabre.

Bev’s town library was built in that light-toned brick style of the late 60’s.  It had two levels with the screening room in the subterranean first floor.  It must have been sound proof since it shared the floor with the children’s room.  Each floor had its own entrance — both handicapped accessible.  The first floor entrance was flat, easy wheeling, while the upper floor’s entry, on the opposite side of the building, topped a sweeping access ramp.  Bev found a couple of her friends crowding and cackling around the first floor entrance, but Luis noticed the average age of library patron at this time of day was either six or sixty-plus.   It was at this point he realized he could not spend the next two and a quarter hours in a cold, dark room with a collective of powdery grandmas.

“G-ma, I’m just gonna hang out with the magazines and computers,” Luis thumbed towards the upper level.

“All right, I’ll come up after the movie and we’ll get lunch.  You pick,” Bev replied and shuffled off with her flashy cohort to enjoy the timeless (yet updated in 2005) story of Bialystock and Bloom. Luis trudged off to the other side of the building to prolong his time spent in the sun and to make sure nobody passing thought he was a perv hanging out in front of the kiddie room at the library.

Luis did not have an iPhone, which was an ongoing discussion with his hippie parents, and they dangled the thought of one over him as incentive to take two AP classes this year.   He did have a flip phone “in case of emergency” his Dad said.   And he did as much as he could to keep that antiquated gizmo from public view.  The plus side of this arrangement was he was marginally more aware of his surroundings than most teens.  He moved though the library’s front doors and headed over to a pod of computers.  With the better part of two hours ahead of him he wasn’t going to be able to squat at this PC for more than 30 minutes, so he began to consider his options.  He could either take a nap in one of the carrels or find one of books from his as yet unread “AP summer reading list.”     He only had to read two books from the onerous list of five, and he was tempted by Sartre’s play, No Exit (because a play’s gotta be shorter to read than a book, right?) and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (because he could relate to “brothers” more than “sisters”).  He took a look around the stacks and saw that the fiction “S” section was the closest.  No further internal discussion required:  he would pluck his man Sartre of the shelf and one book would be history.

While Luis was sauntering over to “Sa” a bit of pink captured his eye. At the level of his knee, sticking out by just an inch was the spine of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.  He genuflected to reach the book — his first instinct was to push it back in and make the shelf uniform to the eye, but he remembered Bev’s lament regarding cultural trash.  Was this the original Valley of the Dolls she was referring to?  Would a trashy book from the 1960’s really be better than a TV mini-series?  Luis looked up to make sure nobody could see him.  The stacks were vacant, and when the A/C whooshed on it startled him.

He cracked open the book to check the page count and then ruffled the pages, fast, with his thumb.  “There must be a drawing inside,” he thought, as an image lingered in his mind, too fast to register as more than a smudge, but not quite words.  But he was curious as to what kind of illustrations an old trashy book from the 60’s might have so he thumbed along through the middle of the book until he was stunned, open-mouthed.  Pressed tightly into the center of the pages was a not too dirty but not too fresh one hundred-dollar bill.

‘Holy shit!”  He slammed the book closed and looked up fast — there was no way somebody didn’t see him, but when he glanced around he was alone.  This had to be some sort of drug deal in progress or a gang test or one of those reality show punks or something.  There was no way anybody was using cash as book marks.  Maybe some senile old lady left it there?  Luis palmed the bill in half,  slipping it into his jeans pocket.  The next two hours were going to feel a lot longer.

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Short Fiction

Introducing Ruby, Viv and St. Benjamin

Once upon a time there was a little old lady. She wasn’t always a little old lady. She remembered very vividly what it was like to be a young lady, and while she enjoyed being a young lady with great gusto and flourish, with many suitors and their attention, she was much happier now as an old lady.  She enjoyed the solidity of her earned wisdom, and the liberation that came from her neutrality.   Like Switzerland, she had pretty much seen it all and now opted to stay out of it, and to focus her remaining energies on chocolate and cuckoo clocks.   Which wasn’t to say that she wanted to hide away from debate and controversy; she rather liked a feisty dialogue.  She just liked to walk away at the end of the discussion with no hard feelings.   Then again, she felt this way her whole life so maybe that feeling had nothing to do with her age and wisdom.

So Ruby put on her sexiest orthopedic-style sneakers and went out to the library to meet her best friend.  It was a sunny day but not too hot so took one of her public radio fund-raising thank-you tote bags, threw in a Gatorade and walked the half-mile to the little community library.  The walk itself was uneventful except for the fine looking shirtless gentleman jack-hammering at some roadway construction.  My, she may be old, but she certainly wasn’t blind.

When she reached the cool, dusty corridor of the library entrance she stopped to take a long slug of her Gatorade.  A toddler gazed up at her in drool and awe from his stroller.  His mother, also slack-jawed, was preoccupied with her smart-phone.  Ruby replaced the cap on her Gatorade, uttered a soft, thirst-quenched “Ahh!,” and pulled opened the inner vestibule door while the toddler watched wide-eyed.

The audible “WHOOSH” of air conditioning made the little boy blink and his mother look up from her little glowing screen.  It made Ruby feel as if she were passing through a portal to another, rarefied world.  And in a way, she was.  Libraries were a space out of time.  Quiet, contemplative places, musty oasis with places to hide and be hidden (as we shall see shortly).  Like a little steam punk submarine, she sailed into the library and headed with great purpose to a broad readers’ table in front of the periodicals.  Sitting at the table was another old lady, her best friend Viv.

Like a curious teen, Viv was engrossed in Cosmopolitan Magazine, but like a furtive teen, she had it propped within the folio of The Economist.  To any passer-by (who remotely cared), it would appear that she was just an erudite senior citizen catching up on world events, rather than lamenting the poor quality of what passes for sex tips these days.  Viv was eating contraband beef jerky out of her ancient Kurt Vonnegut canvas tote bag that carried her library fodder.

“Did you even eat a decent breakfast, Viv?,”  Ruby asked as she sat down across from her friend, resting  her bag on the table top with a gently thud.

“I’ve lived a rich and full life in spite of your judgment, old woman, “ Viv returned with affection.   She wouldn’t think of offering her friend the offending jerky.  She knew better.

“So, what’s the plan, my friend,” Ruby inquired.

Ruby and Viv picked today to meet in the library as the kick-off of an experiment.  For the next few weeks they were going to press a crisp one-hundred dollar bill in the center of a book in the hope that Fate would shine her beacon on this book to help  a needy and deserving soul at the end of her (or his) rope.  A pair of micro-lending, grey-haired knights in bi-focal armor, they were hoping to create a little excitement in their own lives, and as students of the human condition they were just a little curious to see what drama (if any) would unfold.   Today’s goal was to place their first offering.

It was possible that the money would not be discovered for a long time or never found at all.  They debated leaving a hint as to who left the money, or a note stating the money was intentionally hidden with the purpose of discovery, and ultimately, to help the finder.   But the more they discussed it they came back to the same scenario:  just leave the cash in the pages and trust that the milk of human kindness had not soured yet.

“What books do you think are the most appealing to the desperate?” Ruby whispered to Viv.  “Or would they would be looking for an escape from the everyday?”

“Let’s try not to over analyze the thing, and just make a decision.  We can always change it up next time. Forget Oprah’s stinkin’ book club and let’s just pick a classic that stands the test of time.”

And that was how they decided the first miracle of St. Benjamin would occur in fiction, in Jacqueline Suzann’s  Valley of the Dolls.

…. to be continued