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Stories-Spring 2007-Pg 5


The Smallest Distinction in a Universe

        by  J.D.  Loa


"I can’t concentrate," Carol said.

"You have to try," said her partner in meditation. His voice was genuinely soothing, which only served to whittle away at her nerves.

Carol’s mother had sent her to some fluke-Zen garden bullshit that she saw online. The site had animated monks, waterfalls, white lilies, and lush pictures of sleeping quarters with no beds or chairs. It was supposed to be three whole weeks for three thousand dollars up in the mountains with the trees and the bugs. Three thousand dollars for bug bites, small meals, and no one to talk to except for these enigmatic men posing as mendicants. Carol was frustrated that her mother had recommended this to her. She was getting engaged, and being here irked her. It just stressed her out even more. Really, sometimes her mother had no clue. Quick fixes like this insulted her.

Carol pursed her lips.

Her partner in meditation, a young man, probably five years younger or older than herself, watched with rapt attention. His eyes were wide in amazement. He could feel the negative energy coursing through her. It could have a tint of cynicism, guilt, anger, or regret, but he was a novice, and couldn’t feel its specific energy. It wasn’t in his best interest to pry. His eyes fluttered closed.

"Sometimes we allow ourselves to sift into the darkness we create, because it is our only means of expressing our deepest troubles."

Carol opened her eyes and looked at him. She was confused and growing more frustrated at such a vague statement. Yet, she could still distinguish the small smile on his face that flickered.

"Do you think this is amusing—confusing foreigners with your cookie fortune lingo—because I think it’s awful and trite."

He opened his eyes as well and met hers. "‘Trite’? What is this word, ‘trite’?"

"Oh, don’t act like you don’t know, you—uh, you…"

"My name is Kobo Murakami," he said with half-closed eyes. "But the master insists that I let visitors call me Kobo. I share my name with the honorable Kobo Daishi, who adapted the seven days of the week from Yi Jing—and fortune cookies are not an authentic Chinese custom. It was created for Americans with no taste."

Carol fumed. Kobo smiled a playful smile. She went back to meditating. At least, she tried to. She felt as if he were still watching her.

He wasn’t, though. He was pouring himself some tea the way his father taught him to instead of the way his mother taught him to. One day, while he poured tea for his family—both sides—his mother explained apologetically to her family that he had the luckless birth of what she, after translation, would refer to as unfortunate, disgraceful and bastard-worthy. He still couldn’t understand what possessed her to label his existence in such a way, just as he couldn’t find a true discernment between the Japanese and the Chinese. They only have small customs and differences in facial features to indicate they are one thing or another. Everything exists in such confinement—even negative energy. Kobo wondered: Is it all that important to know whether the negative energy belongs to bad relations or a terrible ordeal? He could never be too sure. He thought about this so deeply that he forgot he was pouring the tea, and he burnt his hand. "Aiii-ya," he hissed.

Carol went into neurotic clean-up mode and took the hem of her dress-length shirt to wipe up the excess, which wasn’t very much. She noticed that despite how painfully hot the tea was, the monk still let it drip into his palm as not to make the wooden floor more wet. He then placed the tea pot back on the small table and used his sleeve to clean the floor, which his master would have surely disapproved of. "Thank you," he said.

"No, it’s okay," Carol sighed.

They both finished wiping and automatically got back into meditation stance.

Carol looked over at him. "Does your hand hurt?"

"No," he lied. "Come, Miss Carol, let us try to feel the peace of our surroundings."

Carol tried earnestly. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes again. The birds warbled and everything buzzed. She could hear the waterfall far off and felt a strong detachment from everything that was so close by. She also suddenly felt a little guilty for how rudely she had reacted before.

"I’m sorry for patronizing you, Kobo."

"What does ‘patronizing’ mean?"

Carol looked over at him to find him playfully smiling again. It upset her in a strange way. For some reason, she had wanted a serious turn in the relationship. In the relationship? Why, this wasn’t a relationship, this was barely even an acquaintance. He was assigned to her for God’s—or Buddha’s?—sake.

Carol’s expression made Kobo worry. "Is there anything wrong, Carol?"

"No, I’m just… I really can’t do this, sir—Kobo. It’s…"

Kobo’s eyebrows rose. His smile widened.

She watched his smile and felt even more troubled. It provoked her. She grew defensive and said: "I didn’t come here to find inner peace. It’s just that it was free—my mother paid for it—I’m going to be married in three weeks, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing in the mountains. I have a million things to plan, and I can’t stand the idea of sitting here. And the fact that I chose to go here anyway, just because it was free, even when I know I should be doing other things—I just—ugh! Do you understand a word I’m saying? Don’t smile like that, I’m very upset right now."

Kobo began to laugh.

"What is your problem?" she asked crossly.

"No, I just finally understand something. The importance of…" He didn’t finish this. He just sighed a self-satisfied sigh and smiled as if he had just been enlightened. "I’m so happy to have met you. I have finally discovered the answer to a question I had been asking myself for years."

The earnest, good-hearted nature of his smile and words upset Carol enough to make her ball her fists. She began to cry.

"Miss Carol—I don’t understand—"

"My fiancée doesn’t care about the plans," Carol said in a whiny, high-pitched sob. She was embarrassed and couldn’t contain the animal noises. She cupped her mouth, but Kobo removed her hand. "He doesn’t care if the tablecloths are white or baby blue, or if the wedding singer is a woman or a man, or if my dress has a ten foot train or a five foot train—he hasn’t even picked his best man, and I had to pick out the invitations all by myself, and—"

Kobo wrapped his arms around her.

She sobbed into his meditation garb. "Men are so inconsiderate—Roy is so inconsiderate; how can I spend the rest of my life with someone who doesn’t even care?"

"Oh, Miss Carol," Kobo whispered into her neck: "Not everyone has yet figured out the importance of all things in the universe. It is too big and mysterious for most to even acknowledge—"

"I’m not asking for much—"

"I know, Miss Carol—"

"Just. Tell me if you want white or baby blue for the stupid tablecloths, help me for God’s sake, but he just won’t—"

"Blue, Miss Carol—"

"I’m so frustrated, Kobo, I’m angry. I don’t want to go through with it—"

"A male should sing at your wedding—he doesn’t have to have a good voice, as long as he is charming and makes everyone feel at home—"

"I don’t—I just can’t deal with it—"

"A five-foot train so that way no one will step on it," Kobo panicked. On this last sentence, his voice rose a little too high and squeaked.

Carol pulled away and looked at him with spittle and snot and red eyes and a puffy nose.

"Kobo, I don’t want to."

Kobo placed his hands on his knees and exhaled. He fixed his expression. "You must try."

The sternness in his voice—how uncharacteristic it was of his boyish face—it made her want to kiss him. Catholic guilt got the better of her, and with pride and a sense of fear, she stood up and said, pressing her dress-length shirt:

"You know what, Kobo-san? I think I will."

Then, she hurriedly walked off. She walked through the maze they called the living quarters and saw silhouettes of meditating people through the paper doors. She thought she saw something seductive happening, but one of the monks must have just been bending over to pour tea for his guest. She wondered if she had been Buddhist, if she would have kissed him and left the resort—no, the meditation grounds—with a sense of completion and fulfillment.

Kobo sat in silence. He thought he saw a spot left from the tea, but he made no motion to wipe it away.

Bio:  J.D. Roa is a diminutive, thick-eyebrowed creative writing major crawling through the pipelines of Pasadena City College, and aspires to transfer to a local California University by Fall of 2007 as well as publish a few short stories.  Is currently working on self-publishing a book of short stories entitled A Strong, Windless Place in the Sky and Other Short Stories, and loves reading, writing, reading about writing, writing about writing, and chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips.


The Interloper

        by John Aleknavage

The glass door to DeRay's Riverside Restaurant jerked open, causing the bells attached to its frame to announce the arrival of a new customer with a violent clang. 

A man swaggered in as if he owned the place.  He was dressed in camouflage from head to toe except for a dingy, blaze orange cap he wore propped high on his brow, its curved bill framing a set of clear blue eyes that bespoke a single, agitated purpose.  He sauntered up to the bar and sat down on a stool a few places removed from the stranger whom he had only just noticed.  They were the only customers in the rickety, old place, propped up on pilings that stretched out over the tidal river. 

The shack was so ill- constructed, the frothy waves of the water below were visible through the chinks in the uneven floorboards.  The stranger noticed the man's wading boots were coated with sand frosted mud from the beach.  Stained a dark brown from dried silt, it appeared they had once been made of a yellow rubber, but that was inconclusive.  He smelled of cigarette smoke and gasoline and the murky depths of the brackish river.

He produced a pack of Marlboro reds and placed a cigarette in his mouth, letting it dangle there in his lips. 

"Hey buddy," he barked, "can you pass me one of them ashtrays?"

"Sure, here you are."  The stranger slid the ashtray down the dark wood bar top and noticed the recipient had a handsome, weathered face that looked perpetually burned by sun and wind.  The room was dark, but the smoker's eyes fixed on the stranger.  This one was nicely dressed in a suit and tie, had light brown hair neatly parted on the side, and looked like he was well accustomed to prep schools and country clubs.

"Thanks.  Hey, you ain't from around here, are ya?"  He lit his Marlboro.

"No, this is my first time out this way."

"You from the power company?"  The power plant lay a few miles down river.  It owned all the shoreline in the area and half of the wooded hills surrounding the remote place where fishermen lived in old houses, their yards strewn with crab pots and rusted cars propped up on blocks. 

"No, I'm a real estate attorney," he answered in a polite but uncomfortable manner.

"Real estate?  Aint nobody sellin' around here I know of."

The stranger returned only a muted smile so as not to encourage further conversation.  It seemed to work.

"Heidi!" yelled the smoker, craning his neck to see into the kitchen.  His gruff voice echoed through the small establishment. 

"Where the hell is she?"

A heavy-set woman with a kind, careworn face peered out of the doorway, "Hey Vern. ..The usual?"

"Yep, gimme a Bud." 

"Coming right up, hon."

Then reaching over with an outstretched hand, "I'm sorry, I'm being rude, my name's Vernon Whitman." 

The lawyer extended his own hand and they shook in an awkward greeting.

"I'm Lawrence Brown."

"Nice to meet ya ,Larry.  Mind if I call you that?"

"Sure," then after a momentary pause, "Are you a fisherman?"

"Why, do I look like one?"

"Uh, well no, I just assumed."

"Ah, ha," laughed Vern, "I'm just riling you man!  Of course I'm a fisherman, among other things."

Heidi appeared from the kitchen and placed an open bottle of beer in front of Vernon.

"Thanks, darlin'."  

"Why aren't you out on the water, Vern?"

"Oh," he bellowed, wincing in pain, "my God-damn back is actin' up again.  I'm sorry; I don't mean to use no curse words in front of strangers."  He turned to look at the man seated next to him.

"That's ok, I'm not offended."

"Your food will be out in just a minute sweetie," Heidi assured the lawyer, then turned and went back into the kitchen.  The smell of frying grease and burnt coffee filled the empty bar.  The windows framed a view of the lazy brown river as it flowed by and stretched for miles in every direction. 

A steady drizzle shrouded the  far banks.

"I don't never cuss in front of strangers," continued the fisherman.  "That's plain bad manners.  My momma didn't raise me that way."  Again, the other just smiled politely, his hands folded as he leaned into the bar.

"No sir," Vern continued, "I'm just a good old country boy, and we don't talk like that.  The other day, I was down at the Seven Eleven and a couple of Mexicans was cussin' out the cashier, and I told 'em to shut the hell up before someone whooped their asses and taught 'em how to behave in public.  I don't stand for that, especially in front of a lady."

The lawyer shifted nervously in his bar stool.  He was to meet with some hick land owner that afternoon to make him an offer on a tract of property, and was beginning to regret ever having stepped inside the small dive of a restaurant.  Realizing he had already ordered his food, and could not extricate himself without causing a scene, he decided he had no alternative but to play along.

"So what happened?"

"With the Mexicans?  They jumped me when I went out to my truck!  I laid two of 'em out right off, but then one snuck up behind me and smacked me in the head with a crowbar or somethin', and the next thing I know, I'm picking myself up off the asphalt!  Them boys lit out of there though, they weren't nowhere around when I come to.  It's a good thing too, 'cause I'd a killed one of them sons-a-bitches, oops, there I go again, my apologies."

Lawrence feigned interest with a raised eyebrow and a forced smile.  "Wow, you knocked two down?"

"I'd a whooped 'em all except for that coward  little son-of-a  biscuit, what snuck up behind me."

The lawyer looked at the man trying to decide if he was for real.  Vern took a long swig of his beer. 

"Mind you now, I ain't a fighting man!  I don't never start up with somebody who don't have it comin' to him."

"Yeah, you should be careful, you could have been killed."

"Killed!" bellowed Vern, "Nah, I've fought five boys at a time, been shot twice, hit in the head with a two-by-four, hell they ain't never killed me yet!"  There was a brief pause and the fisherman's face grew contemplative.  "I'm getting too old for such carryin' on.  I've got to change my redneck ways."

"Aw, there's nothing wrong with being a redneck," consoled the lawyer.  The words had not escaped his lips when he began to regret them.  There was an uneasy silence as Vern took another swig from his beer and his eyes narrowed as he sized up the lawyer.  The steady hiss of French fries boiling in fat resonated from the kitchen.

 Lawrence wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the butt of a revolver sticking up from the waistband of the  fisherman's pants.  He shifted his eyes to avoid staring.

"That your car out there?" Vern asked, motioning to the late model Mercedes parked in the gravel lot.

"Yes," answered the lawyer with a sheepish grin.  He loved the car.

"A man's got to make a lot of money to drive a car like that one, don't he?"

Larry squirmed in his barstool and gazed out at his shiny masterpiece of German engineering. 

"No, not really.  You can buy them used, pretty cheap."

"You buy that one used?"

"No, no. I bought it new."

"But you say a fella, what like me, would have to get one used to afford it right?
Aint that what you was sayin'?"

"Oh, no, no, that's not what I meant.  I was just saying you can get them cheap, if you wanted to."   He sipped his iced tea to wet his suddenly dry mouth.  It was far too sweet.  Vern was looking at him again, a blank gaze on his face as though he were deciding whether or not to take offense, and that made the lawyer all the more unsettled.  A heavy tension hung in the air now, not unlike the steady drizzle outside, and Lawrence wished his food would come out soon so he could eat and not have to talk anymore. 

The fisherman took a drag from his cigarette and called out to Heidi, "Hey, did you hear Jack shot a ten point buck yesterday?"

"Did he?" came the muted response from inside the kitchen.  "He better bring a cut to me."

The lawyer had gone pheasant hunting once, so in an effort to patch things up a little, he made a friendly inquiry. 

"It's not hunting season yet, is it?  I mean, it's the middle of the summer."

"Huntin' season?" Vern chuckled, "They aint no huntin' season around here, well, except for waterfowl.  Way I look at it, a deer steps foot on your property, he's yours for the takin', don't matter what time of year it is."

"Oh, so you're a.." the lawyer checked himself.

"I'm a what?"

"Oh, nothing, I was just."

"You was going to call me a poacher, weren't you?"

"No, no, not at all.  I was just going to say, um, they say venison is very healthy for you," the lawyer tried desperately to change the subject.  "You know, with all the fatty food we eat these days, it's supposed to be low in cholesterol."

"Well, I don't know nothin' about cholesterol," Vern's face grew red and agitated, "but I can damn well assure you any man what calls me a poacher had best be ready to back it up.  I don't stand for that!"

"No, no, Vern, you misunderstood.  Look, I apologize if I offended you.  I just wanted to come in here and have a little lunch, that's all."

"Well, I don't know why you'd bother comin' in here in the first place if all you want is to pick a fight!"

"First you call me a redneck, then you go showin' off that fancy car of yours and saying how a fella like me would have to get one used to afford it, and now you go and call me a poacher!    I'll be God-damned but if that  ain't a hell of a way to meet up with a fella!"

"Please, Vern don't be upset.  Here, let me buy you a beer."  Heidi emerged from the kitchen just in time like a corpulent angel, carrying a plate heaped with steaming, hot fries, a tuna fish sandwich and a pickle.

"No fighting in here Vern," she chastised while setting the plate before the lawyer.

"I ain't startin' no fight!  This here lawyer", he pronounced it law-yir, "is all full of hisself, braggin' and boastin' and passin' out insults.  He just went and called me a poacher!"

Lawrence was confounded.  He looked to Heidi for support, but her face took on an expression of shock.  She appeared as though she had just heard a loved one had passed away.  "Oh no honey, we don't use that word around here."

The lawyer's heart raced as adrenaline surged through him and he struggled to find a way out of the uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation. 

"Heidi, give this man a beer on me, and while you're at it, I think I'll take this food to go."

He stood up from his bar stool and unfolded his wallet.  He placed a twenty dollar bill on the counter, being extra careful to avoid the eyes of his camouflaged nemesis.

"You have to leave?" asked the waitress.  "You just came in."

"Yes, I'm sorry, but I have to meet someone in a few minutes.  I'm afraid I don't have time to stay after all." 

He gazed at the glass door across the room with longing as Vern stewed in silence beside him, a cloud of smoke wafting above his head like the fumes of a smoldering fire.  Down on the beach, a group of fishermen were on the shore unloading their catch into a refrigerated truck. 

"Well, there you go again, Vern," complained the waitress as she disappeared with the lawyer's food. 

"Went and chased off another good paying customer!"

"Hell, it aint me," he mumbled to himself.  "I didn't do nothin' but be friendly.  I don't see why folks can't just leave me alone." 

He pulled out another cigarette and lit it as the waitress returned with a paper sack and handed it to the lawyer.

"You want your iced tea to go too, honey?"

"No thanks, I'm not very thirsty," he lied.  "You can keep the change."

As the jingling of the bells on the door closed off behind him, Lawrence felt a sense of relief wash over him with the humid mist outside.  He got into the Mercedes and drove away from the dark brown river, and left the little shack of a restaurant behind in the drizzle.  The winding road led him up into dark, forested hills where it was nearly impossible to find street numbers, let alone the houses set far back off of the road.  Finally, he located the address he was searching for painted on a battered old mailbox and drove up the muddy lane.  He parked before a one level shotgun shack with a pair of pink flamingos perched within a worn tire flower bed.  His lunch sat on the passenger seat unattended. 

Opening a manila folder, he scanned the document from the courthouse with all of the information about the property he was to acquire on behalf of a small developer.  "Probably wants to build a gas station or convenience store," he thought.  He reviewed the data: twelve acres, well and septic, two bedrooms, one level house, owner: Whitman, Vernon.

Bio: John Aleknavage is a small business owner who lives in the Tidewater of Virginia. He is married to his college sweetheart and together they have a son and daughter. His writing has been featured in the webzine Gryphonwood.