6. Bad Morning

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Dario DiBattista

6. Bad Morning

It was already one of those days.

The work clothes Lisa left in the dryer didn't dry enough. The water from the shower wouldn't get warm. Her puppy had last night eaten her tennis shoes. She stepped in poop while walking him. Wearing slippers. 

After coming back in and quickly crating the pup, she frantically, awkwardly, washed her foot in the kitchen sink, the fecal aroma making her gag. She put her damp work clothes and boots on. 

Out the door, Lisa rushed to her car, already 15 minutes late, got inside and looked at the far sideview mirror to pull away safely. She couldn't see it, though it dangled by a cable like an eyeball knocked out of a skull.   

"For Christ's sake," she screamed to no one, turning the ignition. On. She craned her neck rearward, undeterred, worried more about her job than the mirror. She could add it to her to-do list of things which were rarely ever done. Something in her shoulder popped. And now her neck hurt. 

She pulled away and raced to the first stop sign at the end of her narrow Baltimore street, braking just shy of a Latino mother walking her children. The mother started yelling, rushing her children to the safety of the sidewalk.

Lisa spoke a lot of languages, but somehow not Spanish. Lisa mouthed "I'm sorry!" and sped away to the next stop sign. And then the next one. And then the next one where she almost hit another pedestrian walking their dog. The mirror finally fell off as she skidded to a stop. She understood the curses that time.

On the highway, a minor fender bender on the opposite side, had two cars pulled along the shoulder by the median. And of course everyone southbound on her side, though actually totally unaffected, slowed downed to look, causing gridlock.

Lisa began honking her horn and screaming. She stopped. Tears welling. As the traffic slowly rode by Lisa stretched her gaze as far as she could to see the minor accident, too. Her neck hurt too bad to turn it.

Finally, the traffic gods took favor on her. She made it to the BW Parkway and then her work's exit in record time.

Seven minutes late. This wasn't the first time. Her boss was going to be pissed. The Chief waited for her outside the large, mostly empty hangar, with crossed arms and pressed lips. He spit some dip. It was a graceful arc. 

"You're late."

"I know. I—"

"Get your ass in there, Higgins."

"Yes, Chief!" Lisa sounded off as confidently as she could. She ran to one of the three boxes (virtual cockpits for the drone pilots), boots echoing, neck hurting, a tear streaking.

"Damn, Higgins, where've you been?" her friend Alvarez asked.

Lisa said, "I'm sorry, puppy problems," and took her place. The box stank. Alvarez must've started his protein diet again. She wiped her face and sighed. Started tapping her foot with anxiety.

Later, when commanded, she pressed the trigger to give air support to some special forces engaged with the Taliban from 8,000 miles away. A spectacular fireball from the missile strike whited-out her tiny screen. Alvarez cheered. The Chief shook her hand, patted her back.

It turned out to be a good day. 

5. Good Boy

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(Note: This flash fiction is inspired by @coffeeizmana. She gave me the subject: "Gotta have story with a new puppy." Thanks, Jennifer.)

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Dario DiBattista

5. Good Boy

The new puppy is broke. Yeah, that's the word for it. Broke, and off maybe? Something isn't right.

Bourbon, the large mixed breed, doesn't jump for treats or wag his tail. He eats his food immediately, functionally, and then he sits and stares. He doesn't come close to Jesse with thankfulness. He doesn't want more.

When Jesse comes home from work, Bourbon is nowhere. He has to be found. One time he stared from the top of the stairs. He looked at Jesse looking at him, and then he walked away.

One time he was up against a far corner, standing. Not resting or sitting or kneeling. Standing on all fours. Staring. He flashed teeth when Jesse tried to come close. His eyes seemed darker.

Whether Jesse cooks dinner, watches the news, or reads a book, Bourbon stays nowhere. He's upstairs or downstairs, Jacob's laddering Jesse's movements. Sometimes he's at the top of the stairs near the rooftop deck. It's the coldest spot in the house. Bourbon's head follows Jesse when he ascends to check on him, dark eyes getting blacker.

"It will take him a while to adjust," Jesse thinks, trying to ignore the hairs on his neck. "What did the rescue center say Bourbon's story was again?"

Tonight, late-night, Jesse props himself up against pillows in his darkened room, the TV flashing blue and white beyond his bed. Jesse is in half-sleep, the state of a mind numbed and drained. Fading.

Downstairs—ta-tump ta-tump ta-tump ta-tump—the rush of heavy feet on hardwood. Jesse hears a sustained low growl. Like a faraway freight train getting closer. The rumble of distant storm coming in. Bourbon never makes a sound. Bourbon rarely moves.

Jesse gets onto his feet and all the power goes out. He hears hissing from the HVAC deflating. The click of the ceiling fan losing motion. It slows. And slows. Darkness. Quiet. 

Jesse goes downstairs, slowly. He presses his bare feet firmly on each step. Down. Down. When he touches the rail, the metal vibrates loudly. It echoes quickly then dies. Below, he can hear Bourbon panting. 

The power turns on suddenly, and the light Jesse left on in the kitchen illuminates the room. Bourbon holds a bloody, shredded snake in his mouth. He's smiling, eyes-bright staring, tongue lolling out. 

"Bourbon?!"

Bourbon drops the dead black snake and, happily, rushes over and rubs himself against Jesse.

Surprised, Jesse instinctively tries to pet Bourbon, but the blood on the fur on his face is cold. Jesse recoils. Bourbon stares, smiling, loose tongue dangling. Jesse stays frozen.

When Jesse finally un-dazes to look at the blood on his hands, Bourbon walks past him, up the stairs and into his room. He climbs onto Jesse's bed, waiting for him, and wanting to sleep.

4. Laundry Day

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(Note: This flash fiction is inspired by Mary Doyle. She gave me the subject matter – "Standing in the toilet paper aisle. THE CHOICES!!!" Thanks, Mary.)

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Dario DiBattista

4. Laundry Day

And finally, just like that, Jeremy leaves work. It was a typical day: Bob the "weeble wobble" on the street, lifeless and then resuscitated again (Why does anyone even still call about that junkie?); the Chief winning at ping pong, again (Who holds the paddle like that?); another day where she didn't text back, again (Where is my kid?).

And of course, because he lives and works in a city, and no one knows how to safely put up Christmas lights, there was a big fire, again. It came at hour 23 of a 24-hour shift. Three-alarm blaze. In his profession, you don't just get to go home. In hour 29 of his 24-hour shift, Jeremy was on the roof of a rowhome nearby fighting the blaze. Water became ice. Adrenaline-depleted, he lost his focus and slipped off the roof, his entire descent cushioned by an overgrown tree. Swear to God, the ice-choked branches broke his fall. Nothing but a twisted ankle. 

He hobbles home. 

Sleep never comes easily for a firefighter / EMT. When Jeremy closes his eyes, all he sees is yellow and orange and blue. Sometimes he has nightmares about the worst things he's seen. The red and pink flesh of a newborn because the tub was too hot. The naked body of a slightly spinning, noose-hanged corpse. Lots of liquids forced out of a body that somehow didn't look human.

He drinks vodka with the tiniest splash of Red Bull until his mind feels like a helmet and his brain shuts off.

 

* * *

 

Jeremy awakes and checks his phone. She still hasn't responded. It's her custody week but he still doesn't know where his daughter is. He shifts his body until his heels are on the floor. He sits for a long time. He stands. Tinder.

Laundry everywhere. Whelp, might as well finally do this today. Piles rest on the floor like parallel ant hills. The room smells like sulfur and char. He picks up each pile and throws them into baskets. Probably at least 3-4 loads to do.   

He pulls out his phone. Texts, again. Then he puts the first load in.

Jeremy walks down the stairs to the kitchen, each step punctuating the pain from last night. He opens the fridge and eats cold pizza. He thinks it's funny in the way dark things can be funny that the cheese feels like a dead person's skin.

Jeremy heads to the living room and pours room-temp vodka into the glass from last night. Might as well. What else do I have to do today? He turns on the T.V. Texts. Again.

After many episodes and two more loads, the pizza isn't sitting well with him. He stands up, favoring the uninjured ankle. He remembers he's out of toilet paper.

Jeremy Ubers to the Rite Aid. "Be right back," he tells the driver. 

He enters the store. Walks to the appropriate aisle. The whole place looks neon white.

The phone in his pocket vibrates. He reads. "I want a different arrangement. I'm calling my lawyer."

He stares at the rows of intentionally stacked toilet paper. Basic. 1000. Scott's. Extra thick. Extra soft. Tube free. Cottonelle. Quilted. Charmin. Ultra. Clean ripple. Rapid-dissolving. Mega.

He grabs a single roll of the cheapest stuff and hobbles to the cashier.

3. Beach House

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(Note: This flash fiction is inspired by Jen Kuhn. She gave me the first line. Thanks, Jen!)

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Dario DiBattista

3. Beach House

There used to be a cup filled with seashells sitting in that exact spot.

There, right there. On top of the dresser. Yes.

You cast glances to the left and to the right. Twist your neck to scan the room. For a decade you've been coming every summer to stay here, as unchanging as a gentle tide, and the cup's always been there and now it's gone.

You'd collected the shells. With him. Only a few each year. Only the brightest, the most vivid, the most brilliantly colored. Hand-in-hand, you'd skirt the the ocean. Walk slowly. Stop. Watch. Your head on his shoulder. Sun dipping into night. Return to the house.

In the summers after the accident you'd only kept the beat-up ones. The shells with chips or deformities. Missing an entire section. Dark or uncolored. 

Can't stop a tradition just because your first child died. 

The two of you kept the beach house after the marriage ended. He had June. You had July. August was a hodgepodge of the rest of the family, other visitors. Some August days would overlap. You'd seem him. 

You slide your palm over where the cup used to be. You're surprised at the dust. You pull out your phone to text him. Outside, a firework pops, prematurely. 

"Thank you." Click send.

2. How to Be a Man

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(Note: this short play is inspired by Akim Reinhardt. He gave me the subject matter – "A young person who collects old flannel shirts." Thanks, Akim!)

 #52StoriesFor2019

 Dario DiBattista

 2. How to Be a Man 

CHARACTERS

Eric: 20-something freelance artist. Prone to problem drinking.

Janessa: Fellow 20-something trying to figure life out. The "mom" in their friend group. 

SETTING

A large cedar closet in a basement rowhome of the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. The entire contents of the closet are old flannel shirts. Eric sits on the floor, in the middle, with a half-empty bottle of rye and a glass. It is very late at night. Some of his friends are upstairs after a long night of revelry.

ERIC:

                        [Breathes in deeply, exaggeratingly.] 

            Ah. Like smelling the hair of the forest.

                        [Pours more into the glass, sloppily. Tries to stand up, see-saw-legged, stumbles. Pulls at a flannel shirt until it falls. Takes off his shirt and then laboriously puts the flannel on. Laughs to himself. Smiles and sips.]

JANESSA:

                        [Comes downstairs into the basement.]

            Hey, Eric…um. Wow…

                        [She doesn't come in fully. Rakes her arm through one of the long rows of flannel shirts.]

            Been to Goodwill, lately, I see?

ERIC: Welcome to my cedar closet. I've got 40 years-worth of shirts.

JANESSA: Uh-huh. You, um, starting a Pearl Jam cover band soon?

                        [She sits butt-on-the-floor next to him.]

            What's going on?

ERIC: 

[Takes a large sip. Smiles.]

            Just am doing some thinking. Want a taste? It's a 100 and 50 billing. All rye, 50% ABV.

                        [Holds out his glass.]

JANESSA:

                        [Takes the glass. Sniffs it. Takes a sip.]

            Whew. Yeah. That's something.

ERIC: Like kissing a fire pit.

JANESSA:

                        [Stands back up. Examines some of the shirts.]

            What is all this?

ERIC: My pops was pretty into all this outdoor shit. Fishing, hiking, shooting. You know? 

JANESSA: I don't like to leave the city much, but sure.

ERIC: He had all them other girls, my sisters, so I was all he had to bring along. I wasn't very good at any of it, though. I didn't like to gut the fish. Stopping to wheeze all the time on the trail. Couldn't hit the side of barn with a .22. Pops called me Acorn, because of how useless I was.

JANESSA: 

                        [Chuckles.]

            I'm sorry, that's actually pretty funny. 

ERIC: I know. I was such a pussy to him. His son, the pussy.

JANESSA: You didn't deserve that.

ERIC: 

                        [Another heavy swig.]

            One time, though, we went camping and hiking as a multi-day thing. We were gonna do the thin Maryland part of the Appalachian trail. It was late March but it was still so cold. Our faces turned beet red, couldn't feel our hands. Every step a giant ache. I knew he was hurting, too. 

                        [Pours another glass.]

JANESSA:

                        [Sits back down. Shifts closer to Eric.]

ERIC: We stopped early that first night. I set up the tent almost entirely by myself, and I even got the fire going. Pops smiled at me—shocked maybe? That I could actually do it? We sat for a long time, inching closer to the fire as it got colder, darker, while he kept drinking. He told some ghost stories from his time in the service overseas, ancient Middle Eastern-lore. The jinn. I was so scared that night that I couldn't sleep, and I kept waking up in night terrors. Pops was mad. Pussy, pussypussy, he kept calling me.

JANESSA: Great guy, huh?  

ERIC: The following day he broke his ankle real badly, twisting it off a large rock. I had to rush ahead alone and get help. I did, no problem. I guess I'd learned a little from the old man. When we got back home the following day, I was playing video games alone in the living room at night and pops hobbled over on crutches and sat near me and watched. He had whiskey. Two glasses. He poured me one.

                        [Begins crying a little bit. Covers his face.]

JANESSA: Why don't you come back up? We can talk about this some more, relax, wind down the evening. Everyone's up there wishing you would join us.  

ERIC:

                        [Crying intensifies. Moves against the wall, away from Janessa.]

JANESSA: Eric… It's okay.

ERIC:

                        [Stops crying. Stiffens up.]

You know what he told me that night?

JANESSA: I don't know.

ERIC: He taught me the rules for being a man. 

                        [Stands up.]

            Drink whiskey. Don't say nuffin'.

                        [Takes Janessa's hand. She stands up, too. They walk out of the cedar closet.]

 

 

END OF PLAY 

1. The Specials

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(Note: This flash fiction is inspired by Kelly Madden. She gave me the first line. Thanks, Kelly!) 

#52StoriesFor2019

Dario DiBattista

1. The Specials 

It was a dark and stormy night. No, the weather was fine outside, actually. Seventy degrees, all cobalt and scarlet evening sky. But that was the special for the night: Dark and Stormys. At the Irish bar. 

And this is the inside baseball of how restaurants work:

Chef ordered too much fish? Push the fish before it rots. If a customer complains about the smell of the fish and chips, that's just extra special cod.

Prime rib night didn't do so hot? Slice it up for a cheesesteak deal tomorrow. Put marbled shavings of meat on the nachos – call it "Philly." Spoilage serves no one.

Too much ginger beer in the cooler and a random rum on the shelf that hasn't sold for years? Turn and burn 'em together. Who cares that it doesn't make sense for the brand? A drink is a drink. Maybe some dumb tourists would think that it was Inner Harbor cool.

Tom pocketed his phone and walked over to the couple who'd just come in. They'd chosen the far corner of the empty bar. Action is character and you can learn a little bit about someone from everything they do. 

That's Tom's job. Figure out people – fast. Make them happy and sell them smelly fish and janky steak sandwiches and ridiculous drinks. The owner counts the numbers. The owner watches on the cameras. Tom headed over.

A procession of soccer scarves hanging along the top shelf waved as open-air wind glided through. On the TV, a player hit a sacrifice fly in front of an empty stadium. The only other people in the restaurant – a four-top at the corner table – cheered. Of course, they were Boston fans. Welcome to Fenway South. 

Tom sighed and threw down two coasters like Blackjack cards. He laid down two menus.

"Evening, folks. My name's—"

"Little cold in here, ain't it?" the Man said. 

"I can shut—"

"No, no. What specials you got? Gina, what're you drinking?"

"I was about to—"

"Chardonnay. A cup of ice."

"That's what you always get. Why don't you ask about the specials?" asked the Man.

"It's okay," Tom said, smiling. "I'm a big believer in if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The couple stared at him, deadpanned. 

"What're you gonna do about this cold? What's your name?" asked the Man.

Tom coughed. "I was trying to tell you my name. I'm Tom. I can happily shut the—"

"Fine, what're the specials?" asked Gina, craned over impossibly, looking down at her menu, studying it with her finger.

"Well, for drinks we have a Dark and Stormy special for five, and for food we're selling philly-style nachos for eight bucks, and fish and chips for eleven. We can make a philly cheese steak, too."

The couple stared at him again. The Man shivered.

"So, maybe something to drink to start?" Tom asked.

"What's a 'Dark and Stormy'?" Gina asked.

Tom's smile fell. "Rum and ginger beer."

"Ginger beer? Is it strong?" 

"No, it's, um, not beer," Tom said, crossing his arms, scratching his elbow. "It's like a really zingy ginger ale."

Gina stared at him quizzically. "I've never heard of that. Who ever came up with such a drink?"

"They're pretty good, actually," said Tom.

"Can I taste it?"

"Um, no. I can't—”

Grand slam on the TV this time. The Boston fans roared. Sweet Caroline. Drunk, drunk, drunk.

"Is it always this loud in here?" asked the Man, putting a coat back on.

"It's an Irish bar. And we play sports." 

"C'mon, Gina, let's go somewhere else."

Tom peeled up the coasters and menus as they left. He stared at the couple. Not too long, though. The owner, no doubt, watched as well.

His manager came by to speak less than a minute later. Out of the office, down the stairs. Line drive straight to Tom.

"Did you tell them about the specials?"