The Creep Factor–Part 2

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

The next day was cold, but she kept the back door open. She turned the thermometer up to seventy-five, thankful for the people in the alley: car’s parking, people shouting into their phones, UPS and Federal Express trucks screeching.

When she went home the night before, she had a glass of wine, then another. She had called Qwan, who suggested she meditate. She instructed Tammy to go beyond the physical to the spiritual world to seek answers. Tammy cried out, “I’ve tried that, and I’m still scared to death of him!” Qwan replied, “Focus not on his body but on his soul.” “I don’t think he has one,” Tammy whispered. She said good-bye to Qwan and found divinity in another glass of wine.

At four in the morning, she shot up in bed, the monster in her dream the color of jade. The arms of his coat turned into green batwings. He chased her through the store until she dived into the mirror and vanished.

With three more hours before rising, she heaped the covers on top of her, shuddered, and squeezed her eyes shut. Tears streamed sideways across her cheek.

That morning she put on four-inch heels, and for the first time teased her hair—like her mother used to do—to make herself appear bigger. She carried the only weapon she could find at home, a souvenir from Disneyland: a tiny Swiss Army knife with scissors attached. She never harmed anyone, even spiders she’d toss outside. For Tammy, all God’s creatures were worthy of respect. But nothing could quell her fear of the man.

Tammy polished the counter. She ran the vacuum, swept the sidewalk in front of her store. Her feet hurt from the high heels. When she’d bend over her teased hair would smash into showcases, and shelves.

So great was her anticipation of being murdered, that, she began to think of flower arrangements and who would give the eulogy at her funeral. Her mother would be in shock, her father forlorn. Rachel would be thinking, glad it wasn’t me.

Tammy waited and waited. She peeked through the bathroom window whenever she heard a car, truck or motorcycle. She went out the front door and looked in at the PO Boxes. She glanced east then west. Cars backed up on Ventura. A skateboarder headed toward the Galleria, but no man.

That night, after she got home, she finished a bottle of wine, slipped into bed and closed her eyes like the lid on a coffin.

***

The next day Tammy dressed in her favorite sweater, lavender background with tiny pink hearts, and a navy blue skirt that showed off her athletic legs. Her hair obeyed the brush, and she wore just the right amount of make-up to enhance her features.

She felt invigorated from a good night’s sleep and that the man had decided against the ring, and therefore, wouldn’t return. How foolish, she thought, to work herself into a panic. Tammy hated being a victim.

She was sprucing up a case when the door opened the buzzer alerted.

A young Asian woman walked in, small and delicate, with long black hair parted down the middle. She went to the right aisle.

Tammy saw her looking into the second showcase. “Can I help you?” she asked, walking toward her.

The woman pressed her forehead against the glass. “My boyfriend wants me to see that jade ring.”

“Your boyfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean—”

“He was here the other day.”

The man had a girlfriend!

“He can’t afford it, but he’s up for a part in the new James Bond film.”

“He’s an actor?”

The woman looked at Tammy. “Yeah. He’s up for the role of the new henchman.”

“Henchman?”

“Yeah, the other actor died. They need to cast someone scary looking.”

Tammy felt a hiccup launching in her stomach. “So, he’s like getting into the role?” The hiccup expanded into a chuckle.

“I guess.”

Tammy felt giddy. She laughed. “I have a feeling, he’ll get the part.”

“I hope. What’s so funny?”

“Me. I’m laughing at myself. Can I take the ring out for you?” Tammy asked, feeling like the sun, the moon and the stars aligned instantly for her. She felt ashamed for judging him, stupid for being afraid, ridiculous for having nightmares about him.

The woman sighed and stared into the showcase. “No, I’d have to work overtime for a month if I were to buy it for him.”

“Why buy it for him if he gets the role?”

“Even if he gets it, he can’t afford it.” She looked at Tammy. “He has a hard time finding work.”

“Because of his,” Tammy searched for a kind word, “distinctive looks?”

“That, too. People are picky about who they hire. So now he’s trying to be an actor.”

What did she mean by, that too, Tammy wondered?

“He thinks because I’m Chinese, I know good jade. I’m about as Chinese as Taylor Swift. It’s a nice ring. But he’s dreaming.” She turned and walked out the door.

Tammy went back to the counter and sat on the stool. She pondered the meaning behind everything the woman told her. He was trying to be an actor, had a hard time finding work and not just because of his looks. What other reasons? Had he a prison record? Murdered someone? Would let his girlfriend work extra hours to buy him a ring—selfish, but so were a lot of men. She seemed intelligent. But Tammy knew love wasn’t just blind. It could be deaf, too.

She was reaching for her phone to call Qwan when the ringtone let out, “All You Need is Love”.

“Dazzles, Tammy speaking.”

“I was in the other day.”

Tammy’s neck and arm hairs became stiff as antennas. “I remember.”

“Don’t sell the ring. I’ll be in tomorrow.”

“Congratulations,” she said trying to keep the tremor out of her voice.

“What for?”

“The role, of the henchman, in the new James Bond movie. Congratulations.” She heard his snicker and then the dial tone. Tammy glanced about as if something could save her.

God help me!

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The Creep Factor–Part 1

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

Tammy had nightmares of the man she saw in her store window. His elongated face chased her through the streets of the San Fernando Valley, her terror mounting like a progression of staccato hits rising up the scales on an untuned piano. She always woke up screaming before the crescendo.

It all began after Rachel had a gun held to her head for a measly fifty dollars. How dumb could the thief be, holding up a pillow-and-accessory shop when Dazzles, Tammy’s store three doors away sold jewelry? It was costume, plastic, some silver, a few pieces of gold, but, a pillow store?

After the police left, Rachel came in screaming and crying, “Why me?” her eyes red and twitching, mouth pinched. Tammy knew what Rachel was thinking: you take in more money than I do, why didn’t he put a gun to your head?

She felt that the robbery at Rachel’s had been a prelude to something bigger, a feeling—dread. It all came back to the dream. She was at the Pacoima county-fair, at an old-time taffy-pulling contest where the taffy wasn’t taffy but the face of the man she saw outside staring in at the window display, his phantom shape morphing into multiple cells until a valley of identicals hunted her.

Tammy had a panic button under the cash register. The counter was next to the back door for a fast escape. A six-foot bank of back-to-back showcases stretched down the middle of the long, narrow store, and ten others lined the east and west walls. The glass doors reflected whoever looked into them and gave her time to assess people. Still, she thought of buying a gun.

Tammy stood at the counter with the computer on. She was browsing through listings of Bakelite necklaces on eBay when the door swung open, the buzzer alarmed. Since the robbery, Rachel entered her store like a bull in search of a red cape.

“They caught the asshole that held me up!”

“That’s great.”

“The douche spent my money. Cops said I won’t get it back.” Rachel stood just inside the door, her arms crossed, and her attractive face gaunt.

“At least he’s off the streets,” Tammy said.

“He’ll be out soon enough. And probably come back to rob you.”

Tammy sucked in her breath.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I hate coming to work. I’m so afraid.”

“I understand.” Tammy walked down the aisle. “At least you weren’t hurt.”

Outside, two women looked at the window display. One held a manila envelope, the other several letters. Three months earlier, new neighbors moved in with a shipping and PO Box store. Tammy’s walk-in business increased. The customers were a mix of drifters, aspiring actors and models, hopeful reality stars, and self-published writers. They talked about themselves and shared intimate details, as if she were someone without judgment, and perhaps that was the reason, for Tammy saw the best in people, and she had to admit; it made a slow day go by faster.

The two women left.

Tammy was about to speak when the man in her nightmares looked into the window.

“What’s the matter?” Rachel asked. “You look like you saw a ghost.”

He stood hunched over, dressed in a long black coat, looking at the second shelf in the window display.

“Tammy?”

He was a giant but not really. He just appeared that way. His face and extremities belonged to a man seven feet or taller. His features all merged into the center of his enormous face, leaving his jaw and forehead a wasteland of acne craters. And his eyes, they were two dots of sub-zero tourmalines.

Rachael turned around. “Ew, who’s that?”

“I think he has a PO Box next door. He scares me.”

“You’ve waited on him?”

“No.”

“Probably just a looky-loo. It’s the normal-looking guys you have to watch out for. Like the asshole that robbed me.”

The man left.

Rachel opened the door and looked back at Tammy. “I keep thinking the next time someone will kill me. Or you.”

Tammy gasped.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

Was she really, Tammy wondered? Even so, Rachel left a chemtrail of gloom behind.

Tammy went back to the counter.

She entered her fourth decade of life without husband or child. She attracted men who used her, takers. It made her feel needed, in control, but they always left anyway. She wanted to change, but habits were stubborn, and men wanted younger women.

She dreamed of romances like those in a Nora Roberts novel. She wanted to love and be loved with a passion that could heat Pluto, someone to share in the distinctions of life, to be swept up a switchback of foreplay and countless orgasms.

She went on-line to meet guys, lowered her standards to the bell curve, where all she asked for was a man, under sixty, with a full set of teeth and a decent income. Not even the Internet helped.

She glanced at the large framed mirror—impossible not to look at—that hung on the back of the showcases at the end of the counter. There was no other place to hang it, and her customers needed to see their reflection when buying a necklace or earrings.

Tammy was without glamour, in a most glamorous town, lacked charisma in a city brimming with alluring women, but she did the best she could: added extensions to her lank dark hair, wore contacts that tinged her brown eyes green, ran five miles three times a week at Balboa Park. And she was short in a town where the average woman could play professional basketball. She might have a humdrum face, one that no boyfriend ever lied about by telling her she was beautiful, but she had compassion, could discover the kernel of beauty inside another no matter how hideous the person. So it distressed her, made her feel like she wasn’t trying hard enough to discover the inner goodness of the man in the topcoat who looked into her window and tracked her in her dreams. He couldn’t help what he looked like. She worried that she was turning into a shallow, selfie type of woman.

Tammy passed the day with customers and the occasional consignor who came in to pick up their check or add jewelry and knickknacks to a showcase.

It was a half-hour before closing. The January twilight cast a chill as darkness descended. The street lamps on Ventura Boulevard illuminated empty sidewalks. A light show of pink, blue and yellow neon flashed from the Thai restaurant across the boulevard and into Tammy’s store.

She stood at the counter, matching receipts with money she had taken in for the day.

The door opened. The buzzer warned. A gust of cold wind swept exhaust and the smell of frying fish into the narrow store.

The man appeared.

As much as Tammy wanted to see his inner perfection, she felt the sensation of having her skin peeled.

She grabbed the money and the receipts, went into the bathroom, shut the door, and hid her day’s worth in a bag behind the paper towels. She looked out the back window. Except for her Honda, the parking lot was empty. Her phone was under the first shelf of the counter. She told herself she was being ridiculous. It was always the ordinary-looking men who were rapists and murderers, not the ones with warped faces and mismatched body parts.

Tammy recited the affirmation that her Buddhist friend Qwan had given her: “I see beauty in all things and in everyone.”

She opened the door. The blood evaporated from her brain and left her woozy with fear. “Can, I help you?” she stammered.

He stood in front of the counter, his long arms stretched from one end almost to the other, braced, an anchor for his gigantic head. “I’m looking for a jade ring.” His voice garbled like nails thrashed about in a garbage disposal. His pinprick eyes seemed to enjoy Tammy’s terror.

She thought about lying, but what if he saw the ring? “I, um, yes. A man’s ring?”

“Yeah. A man’s ring.”

“There’s one in the second case in the front,” she said, hoping he’d walk away so she could open the back door. What for? To run out? And leave him alone in her store? Stop looking at his appearance, Tammy told herself.

“I want to try it on.”

Tammy nodded. She hurried from behind the counter, went around the hanging mirror and down the west aisle with her key poised to unlock the case.

He lumbered toward her as if he wore concrete platforms, his expression smug.

He stood close beside her. Affixed to his long coat was a metallic odor, iron, or was it blood?

Tammy reached in and gave him the ring.

Scars crisscrossed the top of his huge hands and knuckles. He jammed the ring onto his pinkie.

She glanced out the front window, hoping someone would come in.

“How much is it?”

His breath smelled like a jar of old pennies.

“$285.00.”

“Gold.”

“14 carat.”

“Hmm.” He stared at her and massaged the tip of his middle finger back and forth over the jade then tapped the stone with his teeth.

Tammy cringed.

“What’s the best price?” he asked.

“I can take ten percent off.”

“Hmm, $255.00, even.”

“There’s tax.”

“Not with cash,” the man said. He stared at her. There didn’t seem to be any life coming from his eyes, not human, more reptilian. She expected a forked tongue to shoot out between his lips.

She’d pay the tax. She wanted him out of her store, out of her life, out of her dreams. “All right.”

He held out his skillet sized hand—fingers that looked like they enjoyed pulling the wings off of sparrows—the gemstone dwarfed on his pinky.

“I’ll think about it.” He yanked off the ring and handed it to her. “I’ll let you know, tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Someone else is interested in it. It might be gone by tomorrow.”

“I’ll take that chance,” he said and walked away. The hem of his long coat touched her leg.

She shivered, watched him go out the front door and realized she had sweated through her blouse. The waistband of her skirt was damp. He did nothing overt. He could have knocked her down and run off with the ring. He could have raped her in the bathroom. He could have knotted his wiener like fingers around her neck and snuffed her.

He didn’t want to pay tax. That was all he demanded.

Tammy prayed he wouldn’t return.

Leaves of Grass–Part 2

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

“It’s ready,” Venus said holding the Walt Whitman bag.

They went down the stairs. Brenda thought about her own deceit, traveling four hours and spending the night at a hotel to buy marijuana.

With her eyes on her cousin, she stepped onto the landing. He leaned against the counter, next to his boyfriend with his arm around his waist. So natural. How long had they been together?

She walked over to the register, paid for her medicine, and thanked Venus for helping her.

In seven years as a politician Brenda learned to shovel manure and throw it on opportunity. A vote for her bill, equal pay for women, came up at the end of the week. Now, she had something to fight with. As her youngest daughter would say, sweet!

She strolled up to Bakar holding the handles of her bag. “Hello Ray,” she said as if she had run into him at the county fair.

His arm snapped to his side. He gaped at her. His round face a fluctuation of red, crimson then scarlet.

“Cousin, Brenda!”

He never called her that. He was as phony as Frank Underwood.

“I’d never take you for a pothead.”

“I’m not,” she said. “The THC helps me sleep. Is that why you’re here, Ray?” she asked. “Because you can’t sleep at night? I can understand why.”

She held out her hand to Ray’s boyfriend who looked like a much younger version of Ray minus the cowboy getup. “I’m Brenda Bustamante, a cousin of Ray’s.”

He glanced at Bakar. “Yeah, Ray’s mentioned you. I’m Martin.”

They shook hands.

“I’ll meet you outside, Ray,” Brenda said.

She left the dispensary.

Gusts of wind rustled her paper bag. Leaves drifted from the street lined trees. She remembered a closed sign in a photo shop with a recessed doorway and an awning. Brenda went up the street and waited.

Bakar walked toward her, his swagger replaced with hunched shoulders. His face sagged like a sack of guilt. He was a real grizzly, wide as a side of beef. When they’d meet in the halls of the state capitol, his deep voice bellowed out arguments to stress his opinions. She tried to have an exchange, but Ray never took a breath. He had the lungs of a whale.

Now it was her turn to talk.

He stood next to her in the doorway facing the street. “No one will believe you. It’s your word against mine.”

“I filmed you with Martin. I took pictures, too.”

He sucked his teeth. She felt his anger roll off of him like a tumbleweed. He took a step forward, snatched his hat in his hand and whipped it across his thigh.

Brenda didn’t flinch but her heart did. She remained poised in the hollow of the entrance, watching as he lumbered down the street, stop and pace. She wondered how he could hurt so many people to protect his lie.

Ray adjusted his hat, gave a yank to his vest, looped his thumbs in his pant pockets and came toward her.

“What’s it gonna cost me?”

“You’re going to vote for my bill. And persuade two other senators to vote for it.”

“I vote for your bill, they’d all know something is up.”

“Oh please, Ray. You can come up with a reason.”

“I’m dead if I vote for that bill.”

“You’re more dead if they find out your gay.” She had him. But he was still family. “I remember the hell you went through when Mike died. The way you and Larry were picked on.”

“Oh, Jesus, Brenda,” he said turning away. “Do you have to bring that up?”

“Isn’t that the crux of it? The hiding?”

He confronted her. “You aren’t? You came all the way from home to buy pot in the Castro. You could have at least ditched the pumps and the pressed slacks for jeans and tennis shoes.”

That was true. She was prone to overdress, but what a jerk. “You’re a phony, Ray.”
“So are you.”

“I should come out and tell my story,” Brenda said. “It could help others. But don’t think you can spin what I saw. I’ll send the film and the pictures of you and Martin to the press. I’ll post it on Facebook. You vote for it, Friday. And get me two more votes. That’s all I need. Cousin or not, I’ll expose you.”

He crossed his arms and loomed over her. “I could come out before Friday. Then you’d never get the vote.”

“Do that. I’ll still send the pictures to the press. Everyone will know why you came out.”

He growled.

They both remained silent in the alcove of the doorway. The wind hissed. Buses and cars sputtered down Market. A woman’s laughter floated on the air like notes from a musical instrument. The sun half above the hills the other half descended toward the sea. The moment Brenda shared with her cousin, a moment so charged became a noise all its own.

At last, he looked at her. She expected anger, instead she saw sorrow. “Your family was always kind to us, not like the others.” His voice just above a whisper. He stared across the street at the shopping center. “I had cancer. I’m okay, now. Forty years old. I’ve lost all my hair, high blood pressure, yup.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ray. I want my girls,” Brenda said, “all women, to have the same rights, the same pay for doing what men do.”

Ray listened. He shifted his weight. Hitched his shoulders. Crossed his arms.
“If you choose to come out, you’d have the support of my family. I promise. If you don’t choose to come out, and you get my bill passed, I’ll never ask for another favor. You have my word.”

“The vote’s only five days away. What happens if I vote for it but can’t get the two other votes?”

“People owe you, you have power, charm them. You can get two votes.”

“But if I can’t.”

“Then the deal’s off.”

Ray snickered, then exhaled through his mouth.

“You know, Ray, during that horrible time,” Brenda said, “I remembered your mom, how she went to the PTA and told them to help stop the bullying. What she must have gone through, losing her eldest boy and then treated like an outcast.” She took a step closer to her cousin. “When they cut your father’s hours, your mom took a job. Bet she didn’t even make minimum wage.”

“She was the heart of my life,” Ray said.

Brenda lowered her gaze. She now knew how hard it was for him to be honest.

Martin came toward them holding a white paper bag. His shaved head along with his beard started to grow a five o’clock stubble. His expression vacillated between concern and hope.“Can I join you?” he asked with a lopsided smile.

“Of course you can,” Brenda said.

Martin looked at Ray. “You were always worried you’d be outed. You’re lucky it was your cousin.” He glanced at Brenda’s bag. “You must’ve bought a lot to get a Walt Whitman bag.”

Brenda smiled. “I don’t like to smoke and I have a weakness for sweets.”

“Did you get the carrot cake?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I got a chocolate chip cookie,” Martin said. “I’m getting fat. But they have a genius baker.”

Ray moaned.

“I’m hungry,” Brenda said.

“Me too. Cafe La Folie is just down the street.” Martin gestured in the direction where the rainbow flag brandished its colors at the foothills of San Francisco. “They have the best crème brûlée.”

“I like it with a really thick crust,” Brenda said. “You know, where it’s hard to crack.”

“Let’s have dinner. I’ll save us a table on the patio.” Martin took off.

“He’s a nice young man.”

“Yup, he’s a keeper.”

“Let’s go break some crème brûlée.”

“Ah, I need to lose weight.”

“We all do. What else is new? C’mon Ray,” Brenda said taking his arm.

Leaves of Grass–Part 1

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

Assembly woman, Brenda Bustamante stepped from the taxi onto Market Street in the Castro District. The rainbow flag rippled and waved like a proud declaration atop a pole above the gay metropolis. San Fransisco was a long way from Brenda’s hometown of Bakersfield, and the Castro further still, when it came to politics and lifestyles.

The cool spring breeze lifted the lapels of her blazer and swept her auburn hair off her face. She gazed across the street to her destination, a place she didn’t want even the cabdriver to know.

Since that night, at her best friend’s son’s graduation party when she ate from the wrong—or in her case, the right—batch of brownies and wrapped several in a napkin for later, she drove home, staggered into bed and for the first time in years fell into a fathomless sleep for almost eight hours. Best of all, she woke up without a hangover, unlike the pills her doctor had prescribed. With her intense workload and ambitions for higher office, sleep was crucial. After talking with Tony, she decided that edible marijuana was the answer, and with a medical license, it was legal. She drove all the way from Bakersfield to the central coast to get her permit. If her constituents back home knew, even the more liberal ones, they might vote her out of office.

She had never smoked, cautioned her three daughters about cigarettes and drugs. She did have one addiction, sweets, especially cookies and cake.

Brenda found a cure for her insomnia. And gosh darn it—she had every right to buy it.

She waited at the crosswalk. Her research, the knowledge of all aspects of cannabis, made her aware of the medicinal benefits. When she went online to Weedmap, she found more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks in the city. Further information revealed the best places to buy edibles were in the Castro.

Brenda had one day to purchase her medicine and drive to her apartment in Sacramento.

She passed young men and women in the crosswalk wearing T-shirts, jeans and Giants’ baseball caps. Before going into politics, they reminded her of her students at Cal State, Bakersfield. No different, except that the men held hands with each other, and so did the women. There were heterosexual partners with children, and, at the bus stop, an older Asian couple quarreled as the breeze carried a notion of how close she was to the sea.

She recalled that ugly time during Prop 8 when yellow signs blotted homes and church lawns. It sickened Brenda how people’s ignorance incited fear.

So, when marriage equality became the law in California, she rode in a float as grand marshal in the Pride Parade. Her three girls cheered and waved rainbow and American flags as she passed by sitting on a bale of hay in a restored 1930 yellow Ford pick-up truck waving to the spectators. She never imagined being in a parade could be so much fun.

Brenda headed toward the neon green cross on the facade of the building and a black awning with gold lettering, Leaves of Grass: An Apothecary.

By the open door, stood a security guard with a tattoo circling up his neck.

“Rip offs!” a man yelled.

The guard stepped in front of the door.

“You can buy this shit for twenty bucks at the corner of Hayes and Pierce. Rip-offs! Suckers!” The man staggered away.

Noise from trolley buses and cars clanked over metal plates that covered wide tracts in the street. Passersby chatted on phones. A homeless girl foraged through a trash bin. One man picked up after his dog. The brisk air currents rushed through the city washing it clean, except for the mad and the hungry. As a politician, Brenda felt responsible. Driven by obligation, she saw herself as a statesman, and forced herself to be ruthless toward her goals.

“I need to see your permit,” the guard said.

Brenda reached inside her purse. Her fingers fumbled for the paper. Excited by the unfamiliar, she pulled it out and steadied her hand to keep the paper from shaking.

“Go on in.”

The smell of dried cannabis overwhelmed her. She knew what marijuana smelled like, but this was more pungent, like a crop that had just been harvested.

“Is this your first time here?” asked a young man standing behind a narrow counter in the foyer.

“Yes.” She glanced around the dispensary. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and cable cars circled the windowless, but well lit store. Glass counter showcases lined both walls with shelves holding hundreds of jars of cannabis. Vintage medical cabinets interspersed between the counters combined the old with the modern. Stairs led up to a loft. The place appeared organized, clean, no bongs or paraphernalia that she’d heard about in the funky head shops of the 1960s. The employees were young and clear eyed.

“I need to see your certificate and license.”

Brenda pulled the documents from her purse.

“You’ll need to fill out some paper work,” he said handing her a form.

It instructed her to keep all cannabis out of the reach of children and away from pets.

Never drive when using. Upon purchase, store in the trunk of the car.

She signed her name.

“You can go in now.”

Brenda hesitated, unsure of where to go.

A young woman approached her. She wore a close-cropped Afro and held an iPad. “My name is Venus. Can I help you, ma’am?”

“Yes,” Brenda said. “Thank you.” She relaxed.

“What’s your medical condition?”

“I have insomnia. But I don’t want to smoke.”

“Our solutions and edibles are upstairs. Follow me.”

They went up the steps to a room where the words—Do anything, but let it produce joy. Walt Whitman—was painted on the back wall in a flowing script. A glass-enclosed counter with shelves of assorted foods, an antique cabinet, and a refrigerator in the corner took up most of the space.

“Carrot cake? Is that what that is?” Brenda asked peering into a shelf.

“Yes,” Venus said resting a hand on Brenda’s shoulder. “But only eat a sliver, or it will send you on a vacation you hadn’t planned.” Venus went behind the counter.

Brenda smiled. “No, I wouldn’t want that. Is it fresh?”

“All our pastries are.”

“I’ll have several pieces of the carrot cake.”

“I’ll cut them into slivers. You can store what you don’t eat in the freezer.”

“And the muffins?” Brenda asked.

“Banana or pumpkin.”

“Both. I’ll need enough to last me several weeks.”

“Okay, but cut them into quarters. I’ll give you a printout of all the directions.” Venus typed on her iPad then went behind the counter.

Brenda gazed down at the first floor.

In walked a man who looked like her distant cousin, State Senator Ray Bakar, right down to the Stetson, cowboy boots, vest and beer gut hanging over his turquoise belt buckle.

“What about lemonade and tea. We have cocoa, too?” Venus asked.

“Plenty of each,” Brenda said. She looked down at the man in the cowboy hat. He was a match for her cousin on the Basque side of the family. But it would be inconceivable for Bakar, a gay bashing family value’s hardliner, to be in a cannabis dispensary and preposterous for her adversary to be in the Castro. But then, no one would believe she’d be there either.

“Since you’ll be medicating at night, how about decaffeinated tea?” Venus asked.

“That would be perfect.”

Brenda stared below. The man took off his hat, and mopped his bald head with a bandana. “Oh, my God,” Brenda whispered. It was Ray!

With her eyes on her cousin, she reached inside her purse for the phone. Turning away from Venus, she held the camera at her waist and snapped several pictures.

“I parked along a side street, is there a back exit?”

“Only for emergencies.”

Perhaps she could slip past Bakar without him seeing her. “Do I pay here?”

“No. Downstairs.” Venus went to the cabinet. “You bought a lot so we’ll give you a Leaves of Grass carrier bag.” She opened the cabinet door and took out a black bag with gold lettering and a sketch of Walt Whitman.

Brenda had her hand on the railing when a man walked in, went up to Bakar and kissed him on the lips. She gasped. Astonished. She covered her mouth and braced herself against the railing.

Brenda glanced around the store, for cameras, for anyone who might catch her. Like a gunslinger, she reached for her phone and filmed the two men as they nuzzled and held hands.

The conservative back-slapper, the ranter—“Save our children from the perverts!”—liked men and was a pot user himself.

His hypocrisy appalled her.

Brenda tucked the phone in her purse. Her discovery cast tremendous possibilities. She could expose him. Ruin his career. Or, use him.

She watched, floored, by the tender way he caressed and kissed his boyfriend’s hand. His manner was so unlike the brash cousin she knew.

What she witnessed was a man recklessly being himself. The pathos brought back memories of when Ray’s older brother died of AIDS. The community shunned his family. Ray and his younger brother endured beatings and bullying. Then, in his junior year, Ray shot up to six foot three. The intimidation stopped. He joined the debate team and discovered a talent for wrangling.

Now she knew why Ray never married. “Too busy!” he announced. “Spend all my time working for my constituents.” He became a respected figure in Kern County and a persuasive speaker, even if what he said was drivel. Although the insight brought compassion, Brenda found him a coward.

Boots–Part 2

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

She woke up to another hot morning. Her head throbbed from the shots of Bacardi she tossed back until midnight as she surfed the internet, including the VA for a Daniel O’Conner. She found nothing.

For breakfast, she ate a donut and washed it down with rum. She pulled on a soiled khaki T-shirt and a pair of old jeans and slipped into her combat boots, the dog tags tucked between her breasts.

Sam knotted her ponytail, grabbed a canvas bag, stuffed it into her backpack and left. She had to be at work at twelve hundred hours.

If O’Conner slept off the booze, he might be lucid and recognize her.

At the liquor store, she filled the canvas bag with candy bars, cookies, trail mix, wrapped sandwiches and soda pop then headed down Broadway.

The morning sun streaked the sky orange and pink. Yellow rays sliced skyscrapers and turned windows into furnaces. Sam hurried south.

When she crossed Broadway at 6th, the same sun exposed skid row into a stunning morning of neglect. Lines of men pissed against walls, women squatted. She heard weeping.

Sweat ran down her armpits, her head pounded. Sam felt shaky, chewed sand, and looked around. Where was Marley? She stumbled backwards into a gate.

“Baby, whatchu doin’? You one fine piece of ass.” The man reached over and yanked at her backpack.

“No!” Sam yelled. She didn’t want to collect Marley’s severed arms and legs to send home to his parents. “No,” she whimpered, grabbing the sides of her head with her hands. “I can’t do it,” she said sliding to the ground.

“Shit, you crazy. This is my spot, bitch. Outa here!” he said and kicked her.

Sam moaned and gripped her side. She saw a plastic water bottle lying on the sidewalk, crawled over and drank from it. A sign with arrows pointing to Little Tokyo and the Fashion District cut through the vapor of her flashback. Iraqi women wore abayas, not shorts and tank tops. Sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, Sam hit her fist against her forehead until it hurt.

She saw the American flag hoisted on a pulley from a cherry picker over the 6th Street Bridge, heard the click clack of a shopping cart, and the music of Lil Wayne. The sounds pulled her away from the memory, away from a place that had no walls to hang onto.

Sam held the bottle as she crawled to the edge of the sidewalk. She took deep breaths, focused and glanced around. What the fuck was she doing sitting on a curb in skid row with a dirty water bottle? “Or you’ll end up like that homeless man you were staring at.” “Oh Jesus.” Sam dropped the bottle in the gutter and trudged toward San Pedro Street.

She had thought that when she came home, she’d get better, but living with her mother almost destroyed her. It began slowly, little agitations about housework, arguments that escalated into slammed doors. Then, one day, her mother called George Bush and Dick Cheney monsters who should be in prison. She accused Sam of murder for killing people who did nothing to the United States. Sam lunged at her, when she stumbled over a chair and fell. Her mother ran screaming into the bathroom and locked the door. “Get outa my house and don’t ever come back!” “Don’t worry! You’re a piece of shit for a mother, anyway!” She left and stayed with her friend Jenny until she told her to stop drinking and get her act together.

In her combat boots, Sam scuffled along, hoping to catch O’Conner awake and coherent.

She turned left. The shopping cart poked out from the trash bin. Sam walked to the dumpster and peered around it. O’Conner wasn’t there, but his bags and blankets were. She stepped into his corner and was using the toe of her boot to kick away mouse droppings when someone grabbed her hair and yanked back her head, forcing her to her knees. Terrified, she caught a glimpse of orange.

“Private First Class Samantha Cummings, United States Army, Infantry Unit 23. Sergeant!” She raised her arms. Sweat streamed down her face.

His grip remained firm.

“Staff Sergeant O’Conner, I’ve brought provisions. They’re in my backpack. Sandwiches, candy bars, pretzels!”

He let go of her hair. The ponytail fell between her shoulders.

“I’m going to take off my backpack, stand, and face you, Sergeant.” Her fingers trembled, searched for the Velcro straps and ripped it aside. The bag slid to the ground. She rose with her back to him and turned around.

She saw the war in his eyes. “It’s me. Frap.” His skin, filthy and sun-burnt couldn’t hide the yellow hue of infection. He smelled of feces and urine. His jaw was slack, his gaze unsteady. “You want something to eat? I got all kinds of stuff,” Sam said. Her emotions buried in sand, began to tunnel, pushing aside lies and deceit.

O’Conner tore open the backpack and emptied out the canvas bag. “Booze.”

She knelt beside him and unwrapped a ham and cheese sandwich. “No booze. Here, have this,” she said handing him the food. “Go on.” Her arm touched his as she encouraged him to eat.

O’Conner sat back on his heels. “It’s all—”

Sam leaned forward. “Go on.”

“It’s all. Stuck!”

“What’s stuck?”

He shook his head. “It’s all, stuck!” he cried. He grabbed the sandwich and scarfed it down in three bites. Mayonnaise dripped on his scruffy beard. He kept his sights on Sam as he tore open the Frito bag and took a mouthful. He ripped apart the sack of Oreo cookies and ate those too. “Go away,” he said as black-and-white crumbs fell from his mouth.

Sam shook her head.

“Leave. Me. Alone!”

“I don’t want to.”

He drew his knees up to his chest, shut his eyes and leaned his head against the metal dumpster.

Here was her comrade-in-arms, in an invisible war, where no one knew of his bravery, where ground zero happened to be wherever you stood.

“You saved me from Jackson and Canali when they tried to rape me in the bathroom. I should have been able to protect myself. And when they tried to discharge me. For doing nothing. You stood up for me. Remember?” O’Conner didn’t move. “I never, thanked you. Cause it showed weakness.”

O’Conner struggled to his knees. “I don’t know you!” His breath smelled rancid.

“Yeah, you do.”

“I don’t know you!” he cried.

“You know me. You saved me twice, dude!”

O’Conner stumbled to his feet and gripped the rail of his shopping cart, his spirit as
razed as the smoking remains of a humvee. He shoved off on his morning trek. For how long, Sam wondered.

She gathered the bags of food and put them in the canvas bag. She kicked his rags to the side, took his blankets, flung them out, folded them and rearranged the cardboard floor. She put the blankets on top and hid the bag of food under his rags.

Emotions overcame her. Loyalty, compassion, anger, love—feelings so strong tears fell like a long-awaited rain.

Sam couldn’t save O’Conner, but she could save herself.

She ripped off her dog tags and threw them in the dumpster. Once home, she’d take down the flag, fold it twelve times and tuck the picture of Marley and herself inside it. She’d throw out her military clothes and combat boots. Pour the rum down the sink. She’d go to the VA, badger them until she got an appointment. Join AA. She’d arrive and leave work on time.

The morning began to cook. It was the same sun, but a new day. Sam walked in the opposite direction of O’Conner.

Boots–Part 1

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

The same sun scorched downtown Los Angeles that had seared the Iraq desert. Army Private First Class Samantha Cummings stood at attention holding a stack of boxes, her unwashed black hair slicked back in a ponytail and knotted military style. She stared out from Roberts Shoe Store onto Broadway, transfixed by a homeless man with hair and scraggly beard the color of ripe tomatoes. She’d only seen that hair color once before, on Staff Sergeant Daniel O’Conner.

The man pushed his life in a shopping cart crammed with rags and stuffed trash bags. He glanced at Sam through the storefront window, his bloated face layered with dirt. His eyes had the meander of drink in them.

Sam hoped hers didn’t. Since her return from Bagdad a year ago, her craving for alcohol sneaked up on her like an insurgent. Bathing took effort. She ate to exist. Friends disappeared. Her life started to look like the crusted bottom of her shot glass.

The morning hangover began its retreat to the back of her head.

The homeless man disappeared down Broadway. She carried the boxes to the storeroom.

In 2012, Sam passed as an everywoman: white, black, brown, Asian. She was a coffee colored Frappuccino. Frap. That’s what the soldiers nicknamed her. Her mother conceived her while on Ecstasy during the days of big hair and shoulder pads. On Sam’s eighteenth birthday, she enlisted in the Army. She wanted a job and an education. But most of all she wanted to be part of a family.

“Let me help you,” Hector said coming up beside her.

“It’s okay. I got it.” Sam flipped the string of beads aside. Rows of shoe boxes lined both walls with ladders every ten feet. She crammed the boxes into their cubbyholes.

“Can I take you to lunch?” Hector asked standing inside the curtain.

“I told you before. I’m not interested.”

“We could be friends.” He shrugged. “You could tell me about Iraq.”

Sam thrust the last box into its space. The beads jangled. Hector left.

She glanced at the clock, fifteen minutes until her lunch break. The slow workday gave her too much time to think. She needed a drink. It would keep away the flashbacks.

“C’mon, Sam,” Hector said outside the curtain.

“No.”

Hector knew she was a vet. He didn’t need to know any more about her.

On her way to the front of the store, Sam passed the imported Spanish sandals. Mr. Goldberg carried high-quality shoes. He showcased them on polished wood displays. She loved the smell of new leather, and how Mr. Goldberg played soft rock music in the background, with track lighting, and thick padded chairs for the customers.

The best part of being a salesperson was taking off the customer’s old shoes and putting on the new. The physical contact was honest. And she liked to watch people consider the new shoes—the trial walk, the mirror assessment—and if they made the purchase, everyone was happy.

Sam headed toward the door. Maria and Bob stood at the counter looking at the computer screen.

“Wait up,” Maria said. The heavy Mexican woman hurried over. “You’re leaving early again.”

“No one’s here,” Sam said towering over her. “I’ll make it up, stay later. Or something.”

“You better.”

“Totally.”

“Or you’ll end up like that homeless man you were staring at.”

“You think you’re funny?”

“No, Sam. That’s the point.”

“He reminded me of someone.”

“In Iraq?”

Sam turned away.

“Try the VA.”

Sam looked back at Maria. “I have.”

“Try again. You need to talk to someone. My cousin—”

“The VA doesn’t do jack shit.”

“Rafael sees a counselor. It helps.”

“Lucky him.”

“So do the meds.”

“I don’t take pills.”

“Oh, Sam.”

“I’m okay.” She liked Maria and especially Mr. Goldberg, a Vietnam vet who not only hired her but rented her a room above the shoe store. “It’s just a few minutes early.”

Maria glared at her. “Mr. Goldberg has a soft spot for you, but this is a business. Doesn’t mean you won’t get fired.”

“I’ll make it up.” Sam shoved the door open into a blast of heat.

“Another thing,” Maria said. “Change your top. It has stains on it.”

Oh fuck, Sam thought. But it gave her a good reason to go upstairs.

She walked next door, up the narrow stairway and into her studio, the size of an iPhone. Curry reeked through the hundred-year-old walls from the Indian neighbors next door.

Sam took off her blouse and unstuck the dog tags between her breasts. The Army had no use for her. “Take your meds, get counseling, then you can re-enlist.” But she wasn’t going to end up like her drug-addicted mother.

The unmade Murphy bed screeched and dipped as she sat down in her bra and pants, the tousled sheets still damp from her night sweats.

The Bacardi bottle sat on the kitchenette counter. She glanced sideways at it and looked away.

The United States flag tacked over the peeling wallpaper dominated the room, but it was the image of herself and Marley on the wobbly dresser she carried with her.

Sam had taken the seventeen-year-old private under her wing. She’d been driving the humvee in Tikrit with Marley beside her when an IED exploded, killing him while she escaped with a gash in her leg. Thoughts of mortar attacks, road side bombs, and Marley looped over and over again. Her mind became a greater terrorist weapon than anything the enemy had.

Her combat boots sat next to the door, the tongues reversed, laces loose, prepared to slip into, ready for action. Sometimes she slept in them, would wear them to work if she could. Of all her souvenirs, the boots reminded her most of being a soldier. She never cleaned them, wanted to keep the Iraqi sand caked in the wedge between the midsoles and shanks.

The springs shrieked as Sam dug her fists into the mattress and stood. She walked to the counter, unscrewed the top of the Bacardi, poured herself a shot and knocked it back. Liquid guilt ran down her throat.

Sam picked up a blouse off the chair, smelled it and looked for stains. It would do. She dressed, grabbed a Snickers bar, took three strides and dashed out her room.

Heading south on Broadway, Sam longed to be part of the city. Paved sidewalks, gutters, frying tortillas, old movie palaces, jewelry stores, flower stands, square patches of green where trees grew—all of it wondrous—not like the fucking sandbox of Iraq.

The rum kicked in, made her thirsty as she continued down the historic center of town. The sun’s heat radiated from her soles to her scalp. A canopy of light siphoned the city of color.

She watched a tourist slowly fold her map and use it as a fan. Businessmen slouched along, looking clammy in shirtsleeves. Women, their dresses moist with sweat, form fitted to their skin. Even the cars seemed to droop.

Waves of heat shimmered off the pavement. They ambushed Sam, planting her back in Tikrit.

She heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a Tabuk sniper rifle. Ducked. Dogged bullets.
Scrambled behind a trash bin. Searched around for casualties. She looked at the top of buildings wondering where in the hell the insurgents fired from.

“Hey, honey, whatsa matter?” An elderly black woman stooped over her.

“Get down, ma’am!”

“What for?”

Sam grabbed at the woman, but she moved away. “Get down, ma’am! You’ll get killed!”

“Honey, it’s just street drillin’. Those men over there, they’re makin’ holes in the cement.”

Covered in sweat, Sam swerved to her left. A Buick and Chevrolet stopped at a red light. She saw the 4th street sign below the one-way arrow. Her legs felt numb as she held onto the trash bin and lifted herself up.

“You a soldier?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Sam said looking into the face of the concerned woman.

“I can tell. You fella’s always say ma’am and sir, so polite like. Take it easy child, you’re home now.” The woman limped away.

Sam reeled, felt for the flask in her back pocket but it wasn’t there. Construction workers whistled and made wolf calls at her. “Douche bags,” she moaned. Alcohol had always numbed the flashbacks. Her counselor in Bagdad told her they would fade. Why can’t I get better, she asked herself? Shaking, she blinked several times forcing her eyes to focus as she continued south past McDonald’s.

At 6th, she saw the man with tomato color hair on the other side of the street jostling his shopping cart. “It’s Los Angeles, not Los Angelees!” he shouted. His voice rasped like the sick, but Sam heard something familiar in the tone. He pushed his cart around the corner.

The light turned green. Sam sprinted in front of the waiting cars to the other side of the road. She had grown up across the 6th Street Bridge that linked Boyle Heights to downtown. From the bedroom window of the apartment she shared with her mother, unless her mother had a boyfriend, Sam would gaze at the Los Angeles skyline.

She followed the man into skid row.

The smell hit her like a body-slam. The stink of piss and shit, odors that mashed together like something died, made her eyes water. A block away, it was another world.

She trailed the man with hair color people had an opinion about. The Towering Inferno. That’s what they called Staff Sergeant Daniel O’Conner, but not to his face. He knew, though, and took the jibe well. After all, he had a sense of humor, was confident, tall and powerfully built, the last man to end up broken, not the hunched and defeated man she was following. No, Sam thought. It couldn’t be him. It couldn’t be her hero.

He shoved his gear into the guts of the city with Sam behind him. The last time she’d been to skid row was as a teenager, driving through with friends who taunted the homeless. The smell was one thing, but what she saw rocked her. City blocks of homeless lived under layers of tarp held up by shopping carts. Young and old, most black, and male, gathered on corners, sat on sidewalks, slouched against buildings, drug exchanges going down. Women too stoned or sick to worry about their bodies slumped over, their breasts falling out of their tops. It was hard for Sam to look into their faces, to see their despair. The whole damn place reeked of hopelessness. Refugees in the Middle East and Africa, at least, had tents and medicine.

Sam put on her ass-kicking face, the one that said, “Leave me the fuck alone, or I’ll mess you up.” She walked as if she had on her combat boots, spine straight, eyes in the back of her head.

Skid row mushroomed down side-streets. Men staggered north toward 5th and the Mission. She stayed close behind the red-headed man. He turned left at San Pedro. And so did Sam.

It was worse than 6th Street. Not even in Iraq had she seen deprivation like this: cardboard tents, overflowing trash bins used as crude borders, men sleeping on the ground. She watched a man pull up his pant leg and stick a needle in his ankle. Another man, his face distorted by alcohol, drank freely from a bottle. The men looked older than on 6th. Some had cardboard signs. One read, Veteran, please help me. Several wore fatigues. One dressed in a field jacket was missing his lower leg. Most, Sam thought, were Vietnam or Desert Storm vets. She felt her throat tighten, the familiar invasion of anger afraid to express itself. She’d been told by the Army never to show emotion in a war zone. But Sam brought the war home with her. So did the men slumped against the wall like human garbage.

The red-headed man passed a large metal dumpster heaped with trash bags. It stank of rotten fruit. He disappeared behind the metal container with his cart.

Sam looked at the angle of the sun. She had about ten minutes before thirteen hundred hours.

There was a doorway across the street. She went over and stood in it.

He sat against the brick wall emptying his bag of liquor bottles and beer cans. He shook one after another dry into his mouth. She understood his thirst, one that never reached an end until he passed out. He took a sack off the cart and emptied it: leftover Frito bags, Oreo cookies, pretzels. He tore the bags apart and ran his tongue over the insides. He ate apple cores, chewed the strings off banana peels.

“What are you—” he growled. “You. Lookin’ at?” His eyes roamed Sam’s face.

Shards of sadness struck her heart. It was like seeing Marley’s strewn body all over again. Staff Sergeant O’Conner’s voice, even when drunk, was deep and rich. It identified him like his hair. How could the man who saved her from being raped by two fellow soldiers and who refused to join in the witch-hunts of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a leader, who had a future of promotions and medals, end up on skid row?

“You remind me of someone,” she said. How could a once strapping man who led with courage and integrity eat scraps like a dog next to a dumpster? What happened that the Army would leave behind one of their own? Like a militia, disillusionment and bitterness trampled over Sam’s love of country.