The Man Who Lived in a Cage
Mel Waldman

Professor Joseph Crown, a prisoner of his persecutory mind, lived in a cage of his own creation. The little man with dark brown eyes owned a brownstone on 57th Street. Yet he invited no one to his home. Then in the summer of 1960, my distant cousin called me.

“I want to see you tonight.”

“Who is this?”

“Your cousin Joe.”

“Dr. Joseph Crown?”

“Yes. Come over tonight. Recite your pretty poems. I’ll feed you.”

He buzzed me in and spoke over a loud speaker. “Climb the stairs to the third floor, turn left, and enter my study.”

Tons of books, newspapers, and foul-smelling garbage filled his crimson home.

With his gift of synesthesia, he listened to my words and painted the eerie visions that flowed through his brain. When he read my words, he heard surreal music and composed symphonies. The former professor of art and music fed me and gave me his key.

“Come back in seven days.”

The following week I found his shriveled-up corpse in a metal cage. Beside his rotting flesh, I discovered a bottle of pills, a will, and a short note.

“With pretty words you freed me.”

Richard Baldasty

Apartment 5C
An early January morning surprisingly bright, Ren drops by his uncle’s apartment. He walks into the kitchen where awaits a breakfast of mushrooms, acrid and woody but sweetened with good local honey, and the two of them take a trip. They chat briefly about amusing distortions of perception—the ceiling expands, contracts, allowing them to reach arms up miles high, forcing them flat on the floor. They listen in silence to the bracing strangeness of Penderecki’s Anaklasis for strings and percussion. Given his uncle’s druthers—Ren smiles at the expression—they’d progress to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. But Ren says why spend good magic on old sorrow; his uncle relents.

They agree to “Here Comes the Sun” from George Harrison’s Live in Japan. Ren’s uncle checks his impulse to mention the coming of age ceremony, Seijin shiki, held each early January. Better not to speak, not to deepen. Yet by caution, too, much slips away. The building is being converted to condos. Unlikely he can afford to buy, and the developers indeed prefer that elderly renters go. Reducing the number of units, gutting them and removing walls, creating open plan luxury flats, promises better rewards, an updated scene.

Sometimes he comforts himself by making believe he’ll die rather than move.

7 Ocean Court
Elisa lives in a narrow house, tall and narrow. No wider at most wide than a striding llama but nearly tall as linden trees that grace Berlin. It stands by the sea.

Each spring she gets out her aged ladder. When the last robin hatchling departs a nest, she climbs to gently retrieve blue eggshell fragments. Another mission fetches dry moss and daub and twig. Once all is sorted and prepared, she affixes the color bits to board to betoken sky, pastes the drab roughage into shapes of hill and vale, pencil sketches in a rope bridge across an Andean ravine.

By her silences, Elisa invisibly indicates storm clouds too—portents immediately perceived and understood by anyone beset by sadness.

She’s eager to show her art if ever someone visits her retreat. A left turn little known, a cul-de-sac, off False Harbor Drive. The house, tall and so narrow, 7 Ocean Court. Weather-bleached clapboard, loose shutters, the shining shock of a freshly varnished pumpkin door. In springtime, a rickety stepladder awaiting assignment in the orchard yard.

4218 E. Eggenberg Blvd.
Rubber bands, paper bags, old toothbrushes, burned out bulbs, dried herbs and flowers, aluminum pie plates, soap ends, broken pottery, socks minus mates, bottle caps, clothesline, hotel ashtrays and souvenir matchbooks, parking tickets, birthday cards, shoeboxes, pencil stubs, dryer lint (saved, organized, by color in Ziplocs), grocery receipts, nails and screws and bolts: Tobias hoards anything and everything.

In the garage, a ’54 Chevy Bel Air, four sad pancake tires. Fuzzy dice and St. Christopher medals by the dozen hanging from the cracked rearview mirror.

The postwar bungalow next door has been converted into a Tibetan house of prayer, flags fluttering, big beasts of beautiful stone on the postage stamp front lawn. Majestic rhubarb plants and reddish to maroon-black chickens behind coil fences of thin wire. Tobias bangs his head against changes in the neighborhood, yet his traitor nose adjusts to wavelets of sandalwood. Incense once on Eggenberg, all but impossible to resist.

Female Architect
Douglas J. Ogurek

When she saw the sun grasp the bricks protecting the assembly, she knew, but the dolls said, “Be hot.”

The pom-poms said, “Support the number holders,” and the bright curvy cocktails said, “Be owned.”

The silk scarves said, “Attract,” and her female coworkers’ empty seats said, “Nurture.”

Then the number holders let her go.

After her twelfth interview, she receives a twelfth rejection, but the sun grasps the bricks that protect the assembly. She takes out her sketch pad.

Tux Business
Brett Stuckel

James Valdosta first wore a tuxedo at his wedding. He found it so exhilarating that he applied to work in the shop where he’d rented his outfit. Gio, the knobby old owner, launched a two-hour diatribe against Valdosta and his family, from Gaius Octavius to Valdosta’s sock selection. When that failed to curb the young man’s passion, Gio hired him.

After five years of 12-hour days, Gio doubled Valdosta’s salary to goad him into more days off. Valdosta refused to take vacation and Gio made him full partner.

When Gio balanced the books on New Year’s Eve of 1956, he realized profits had tripled and his heart popped.

Gio’s widow prepared the funeral. She wanted Gio buried in a tuxedo but couldn’t find one in his closet. She rushed to her late husband’s shop and begged in broken English. “Tuxedo, for tomorrow.” She wrote her name and address on an index card.

The clerk handed over the tux with his eyes on the clock and his mind on his girlfriend.

A week later, Valdosta mailed an overdue notice to one Mrs. Unintelligible Signature at 17 East 27th Street but received no response. After two months of weekly notices, Valdosta walked to the address on the card and handed an overdue bill to the old woman at the door.

The two negotiated at the kitchen table. When the old woman called timeout, Valdosta stood, saw Gio’s photograph on the mantle, and began to calculate the weekly profit of an eternal rental.

It could be worse
Roger Wheatley

The fat man slid clumsily between my legs. His movements were jerky and uncoordinated, his breath coming in short, sharp bursts. He looked like one of those people who would never really be comfortable in any position.

He eventually seemed to get himself into a spot he was satisfied with and only then did he put his soft, pudgy white hands on my top. His fingers reminded my of those little breakfast sausages before they’re cooked. Once he put them on me they kind of spread out and it felt like they would leave a greasy film on me.

Then me lunged closer, the straining buttons of his shirt rubbing up against me.

I couldn’t say no, I couldn’t do anything. Don’t get me wrong, some of them could be really nice. I didn’t even mind the rowdy ones who drank too much (except when they spilled their drinks on me).

This one was peculiar. He didn’t seem any more comfortable than me. In fact he seemed quite distracted, looking around constantly, like he was searching for something. Finally I understood when another man came through the door. There wasn’t much I could do – it wasn’t for me to say yes or no. With a nod to his friend the second man slid quickly in on the other side.

He was almost a large as the first man and it was not very comfortable. While I had been in this position many times I never really got used to it, especially with fat men.

They stayed for what seemed an eternity, talking and laughing as if I wasn’t there.

The end, when it finally came, was abrupt. The first man pushed himself backwards and stood up adjusting himself as he did so. The second man took this as his cue and stood as well.

They tossed some money at me and left.

It was the nice girl with the green eyes who came to clean up their mess. She was always thoughtful and very particular. I always felt clean when she’d been there (I didn’t much like the red-haired guy who sometimes did the clean-up – he never seemed to care much and I don’t think he enjoyed his work).

But the brief moment of warmth I felt from the green-eyed girl was fleeting. I was soon ready for more customers.

It was often a long night but when the place finally closed we were put together in a locked room where we would tell each other about our day. Often there was sadness but more often there was laughter – it seemed like the best way to deal with our situation.

We all agreed on one thing – it could be worse, we could be chairs.

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