A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

Pa decided to join the Bonus Expeditionary Force. After dropping Ma and the youngsters off at Uncle Vernon’s, he let me ride the rails with him from our home in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, all the way to the Washington Freight Yard.

Pa and thousands of other veterans were demanding their bonus pay—the money they could have earned if they hadn’t gone off to fight for their country in the Great War. No man wanted to wait until 1945 to get paid, not while his family was starving. That’s why we came to Anacostia Flats, a swampy, muddy area along the Anacostia River across from the Capitol where we could see the dome. Ankle-deep in mud, Pa and I built our shanty along with forty-three thousand, counting wives and children—the biggest Hooverville ever, named after the president who no one seemed to like.

When the bank people came to take our farm, Pa rushed out of the house with a shotgun and fired over their heads, scaring me and Joey. Ma cried. The twins howled and clung to her flour-sack dress. Pa cursed the politicians, said they were just bumping gums when it came to veterans’ bonus pay.

We made our shack out of materials from the nearby dump site—old lumber, packing boxes, and scrap tin. Pa and I worked shoulder to shoulder. He started calling me Tom instead of Tommy.

Other veterans were scattered around Washington in deserted billets, but Camp Marks was the heartland. We built a real city with streets, latrines, a barber shop, a lending library where I spent most of my time, and a boxing ring, where Pa liked to spar.

For breakfast and dinner, everyone ate a stew made of potatoes, onions, and hotdogs. We lived on Pennsylvania Road, a place I called home.

Next door was a colored man from Harrisburg and his son Cornelius.

Pa said two things made a man equal—fighting for your country and taking care of your family—so it appeared, ‘cause everyone got along. Pa said the newspapers lied, wanting to cause trouble, saying the races couldn’t mix, and that communists were infiltrating the camp. How could that be when everyone had to show their service certificate?

One day, Pa and I walked to the top of the bluff where we looked over the entire encampment. From poles and shanties, hundreds of American flags rippled in the breeze, showing how much we loved our country.

That night we took our meal back to our shack. Pa gulped his down and said, “War makes rich men richer. Remember that, son, before you go off to be a pawn in a rich man’s game.” I didn’t eat much after that. Pa’s anger and bitterness filled my belly instead.

A few days after we settled in, we walked to the Capitol where the House of Representatives took a vote on the Bonus Bill. Pa and I wore white shirts and bib overalls, wool caps—hot for June, but that’s what we had, being farmers and all. Other men dressed in wrinkled suits and worn fedoras. The tall columns dwarfed the people on the steps. Veterans sang, “America,” the air itself charged with hope.

When the organizer, Mr. Waters, came out and said the House passed the bill, I never heard such whooping and hollering. Tears ran down Pa’s cheeks. Hats twirled in the air, cheering going on for near half an hour. We had money and could go home.

But when we headed back, Pa said, “Son, this is just one hurdle, the Senate has to pass the bill and that’ll be harder.”


“More Republicans in the Senate.”

What seemed whacky to me was how something so sensible, like paying people their due, had to be voted on in the first place.

That night sleep came in jerks.

Two days after the House passed the bill, we went to the Capitol for the Senate vote. Veterans held signs reading, No Pay We Stay, Give Us Our Bonus Or Give Us A Job.

Pa’s fists stretched the holes in the pockets of his overalls, his jaw working back and forth. I could feel him wanting to get into the ring while we waited. He took off his cap and looked to the heavens.

Pa’s bonus money went down in the Senate. He said it was like the crash of ‘29 all over again.

I was too old to take his hand, but I let him take mine.

“We’re staying on son, until justice is done.”

Some folks left. But many stayed, with more coming from out west to join in the protest.

Toward the end of July, Hoover demanded that all veterans go home, but most had no home to go to.

On July 28, thousands of us walked to the Capitol. Food was becoming scarce at Camp Marks, so everyone looked gaunt, but we were righteous in our cause, and that gave us strength.

Police walloped the protesters with their billyclubs. We broke through their line and ran. Gun shots fired. Women screamed. It turned into a riot, and then I saw the U.S. Army marching toward us.

There was infantry, soldiers on horseback, tanks. They were coming to rescue us. Overjoyed, I cheered along with Pa and everyone else. The army aimed their rifles. Sunlight glinted off the tips of their bayonets. But then—

. . . they were charging at us!

Bile roared in my stomach. They hurled gas grenades. People scattered.

I hacked, snot poured from my nose. I experienced Pa’s pain from being gassed in the war.

Veterans threw rocks at the army.

I shuddered, knowing my father could be killed by his own.

We ran toward the flats.

But what we were running to suddenly rose up in flames—the shanties, the library, all of Anacostia Flats.

Pa put his arm around my shoulder while we watched our city burn. I held back tears, wanting to be strong for my father.


A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

Snowflakes blew sideways down Main Street in Richmond, Virginia. It was Valentine’s Day. Newlyweds, James and Betty Smith cuddled inside the trolley car. Betty took the cuff of her coat and brushed it across the window. Snow powdered brick buildings, running boards of parked Fords and Packards heaped with flurries, the sun paused low over the horizon. The Capitol was dusted in shades of gray.

They’d taken the train from their home in Philadelphia. It was their first trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

James had saved enough for a few days off and asked his bride where she would like to go. Ever since Betty saw Gone With the Wind, she wanted to visit the South.

Betty felt ritzy in her stylish beret, the mauve gloves and matching scarf arranged in neat folds around her neck. Cold air stung her bare legs. Though rationing ended it would be another year before she could buy nylons.

For their first day in the city, they went to the movies.

Back home, as she watched the coming attractions for Gilda, she just had to see the movie. When Rita Hayworth tossed back her luxuriant hair, her low-cut dress revealing a generous bust, and smiled at Glenn Ford, Betty dreamed of seducing James in just the same way.

She didn’t have the sumptuous hair, or the opulent cleavage, and gosh dang it, she wasn’t beautiful like all the good looking dames in the movies, but she knew that James was dizzy in love with her.

The trolley clanged, stopped and picked up a man in uniform.

Betty’s nose touched the glass as she stared down the street and saw the theatre marquee with neon lights. There were so many people, bundled in wool coats and hats. They gathered in the portico, buying tickets at the box office. A column of people stretched beyond the roped off barricade, so many movie goers that another line began on the opposite side. Even on a cold late afternoon, half the city came out for the premiere.

“I’ll get the tickets,” James said.

Betty kissed his cheek. “I’ll miss you, darling.”

The trolley stopped. James tugged at the brim of his fedora. Betty hurried down the aisle and stepped into a cold gust of air.

She rushed to the shorter line, brushed snow from her coat, and tightened the scarf around her neck. People filed behind her, James waited at the ticket booth. He blew her a kiss. She beamed.

Betty heard grumbling. Of all the days to get into a snit, she thought.

Across the portico, an older man glared at her. Why, she wondered? She smiled back. Perhaps he had indigestion, or the biting wind triggered his rheumatism.

James put the tickets in his pocket and dashed to Betty.

They nuzzled.

Low angry voices rumbled behind them.

Betty didn’t move but glanced from side to side.

Two women in front looked over their shoulders. One scowled, the other clicked her tongue.

“Where’s their southern hospitality?” Betty whispered to James.

“Beats me,” he said and kissed her on the mouth.

Across the arcade, a woman shook her head and muttered.

Betty let go of her husband and stepped away.

“Hey, come here.” James reached for her.

“No darling,” she said, afraid she had offended their southern ladylike ways.

Muffled barbs. A woman cackled.

James took her hand.

“No darling. They don’t like public displays of affection.”


“They’re genteel. I’ve heard that about the South.”

A man across the way glowered and spat.

“Fuddy Duddy,” James said, burrowing his fists into his coat pockets. “We’re married.” He yanked at his collar. “I spent four years fighting for my country, I have every right to hold hands with my wife.”

Betty lowered her gaze and stepped further away from her husband.

She smelled aftershave lotion on someone behind her.

“Let’s leave.”

“You wanted to see this movie.” James reached for her, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her to his chest.

The crowd’s pulse throbbed with a venomous beat, snaking its way around the colonnade.

“Please, James. Let’s go.”

People stepped out of line. Shoes squished. Twisted faces. Snarls. The mob moved in on James and Betty Smith. Betty hung onto her husband’s waist for fear they would tear them apart. Sweat soaked her blouse. She wanted to bolt. Run all the way back to Philadelphia.

“Trouble makers!”

“Wise guy!”

James’ arms tensed. She felt his back muscles tighten. That frightened her more than anything. Open the doors, she prayed. She feared if they moved they’d be beaten to death.

“We’ve done nothing wrong,” James shouted.

Atomic eyes. Incendiary mouths. Spurts of vapor.

The theatre doors swung open, two men ran out, and the older one yelled, “Break it up, move back!” He pushed through the crowd.

Someone shoved James.

He swung around. “Hey! Step out in the open and fight like a man. I’ll bust your chops,” he seethed.

Betty grabbed him and held on. “No darling.”

“I said break it up!”

The younger man held out his arms, urging people to get in their lines. “Show’s over. Except for the one inside.”

The pack shifted, grunted and slowly began to separate.

“You agitators or something?”

Betty glanced at his name tag, Manager Michael Buchanan.

“No,” James said. “We were minding our own business. Just holding hands.”

“All we wanted was to see the movie,” Betty said.

“I’ll handle it, darling.”

“Where you from?”

“Philadelphia,” James said.

“Can’t you read?”

“Of course I can read.”

“You’re standing in the colored line.”

Betty reeled. Her gloves hid her mouth. Her romantic image of the South ruined forever.

“Northerners,” he muttered. “Get in your own line and from now on remember where you are.”

The young man stood at the door taking tickets from people across the portico.

Betty glanced around, ashamed, not for herself but for everyone there.

“Let’s leave, James.”

“You’ve been looking forward to this movie.”

“Not anymore. Let’s go.”

The Haunting of Piedras Blancas

A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

There is no end to my love for Jemjasee. I pace the ragged cliffs, searching the sea for her ship. My longing will not cease until I am entwined in her marble wash of lavender and green arms.

It’s dawn. The sunlight’s red varnish stretches across the Santa Lucia Mountains. The mist from the sea floats through the Monterey Cypress. Backlit in pink stands the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.

The waves caress my vestige feet. The foam licks my revenant face. The damp never seeps into my gossamer bones. My long silk robe opens, my breasts exposed to the witless wind. It hisses, jeers, but I am invincible, adrift in my chariot of grief.

The gulls perch in conference on the white rock. Beyond is the blue empty sky, the vast sea without sails, no horizon. Blue. Come, Jemjasee. Am I to roam this rugged coastline for eternity, this journey without distance? I feel doomed, my struggle invisible. You must come, Jemjasee. Save me from my weariness.

I skim the jagged bluff. The elephant seals raise their massive heads when they see me then fall back to sleep.

Along the winding path, I float unnoticed by gardeners and groundskeepers. I glide over the pebbled lane, past stone cottages, a gift shop, the bell and tower.

Slipping through the walls of the lighthouse, I float to the stairs. Tourists gasp when I appear. “The website didn’t say anything about a magic show,” someone says. “It’s like Disneyland!” cries a child. Their zeal echos around the cylindrical walls. I nod, playing along with the charade. It’s not always like this. Some days, people are thick with fear. They flee from my presence. When the sun shines, I’m an act. If the fog veils the coast, I’m a phantom. Most days, they don’t see me at all.

“Ah, that’s my wench.” I recognize the guide’s garbled, liquored voice, his gnarled laugh. A salty ex-sailor, he sometimes comes alone, drinking, running after me, catching air.

On the step, I look into his weather-beaten face. His sunken eyes leer.

Damn foolish scoundrel.

Turning, gliding over the wrought-iron stairs to the deck, I let my robe fall. Naked. “This isn’t for kids!” Offended, parents usher their children outside, then turn for one last glimpse at my beautiful body.

I continue. Invulnerable. My feet sail over spiral wrought-iron stairs, my fingers sweep above the narrow curving rail.

Everyone has gone, except for the guide, who looks up at me and says, “You elusive lass, I relish the day I grab your long red hair and make you mine.”

He’ll never get the chance.

Inside the lantern room, the beacon has no purpose. Still, it shines for those who live along the coast and the tourists driving by. I glide outside to the widow’s walk. From the empty skies to the ocean’s bed, nothing rises or descends.

Jemjasee, if you love me, come.

Not long past, her ship rose out of the sea, and beams of lights pranced above the waves. Particles rearranged themselves, silver, glittered. The mirage shimmied into form. A shape malleable to Jemjasee’s thoughts, horizontal, then vertical, a kaleidoscope of color reflecting the terrain, the craft visible only when she wanted.

Jemjasee was too good for me, too advanced. Not only did I fall in love with her, but the idea of what I, too, might become. She couldn’t suffer the stench of violence that infused my planet. If exposed too long, her breath ceased. I had to go with her, or not.

But how could I journey outside of my own world? Fear ransacked my mind. It stuffed my schooling, programming, upbringing into a box that, god forbid, I break out and beyond until I’m unfettered by the lies I’ve been taught—crammed it down my cranium, and just to be sure, set a lid, a square hat with a tassel on top, to keep it all in.

My decision to leave Earth was as ragged and split as the cliffs of my homeland.

After anguishing in my cottage, gazing on memories, touching knickknacks, holding friendships in picture frames, I pondered all I would lose. The future—too elusive, too great a change, my past—something I clung to.

I can’t leave.

Jemjasee held me, the feeling of sadness so great no words would comfort. My heart was shrouded in sorrow. She walked the waters as her ship ascended from the sea.

The vessel hovered above the waves, a silver triangle. Sleek, like Jemjasee. It rolled on its side, morphed into a vertical tower, with a fissure, and she entered. A thousand lights, curved and colored, sparked, flashed, then disappeared.

The instant she left, I knew my mistake.

And so it began, the tears of regret and self-loathing. I missed the woman who was so full of love, that she knew nothing of its opposite.

One day, while my mind slipped down around my ankles, I sat in my cottage, staring at a collage of empty food cartons, magazines, dust bunnies, paint chips, shattered wine glasses, a broken window from where the wind whispered, Go ahead. Do it.

On that day, I chose to end my suffering. With clarity restored and a mission in sight, I tossed a rope over the living room beam and tied a hoop large enough for my head, but small enough for my neck. From the kitchen, I dragged a chair and placed it underneath the shaft.

I climbed on the seat, put the noose over my neck, and kicked out the chair.

I dangled. Minutes went by, and still I was alive. Then my neck broke and life ebbed. Somewhere I drifted, first as a dark cloud, then into a gauzy realm where I was still—me. Oh, my outrage to discover that I could kill my body but never my Self!

A shadowy reflection of the woman Jemjasee loved, I roamed the rim of the bluff for another chance to leave, hoping she’d return.
I saw her. In my rapture I wailed, Jemjasee!

She walked the shore, shouting, Astrid! I’m here for the last time. Come, before your planet strikes back for the harm done to it.

I ran down the cliff. My kisses lingered deep in her neck. My hands seized her stalks of short black hair.

Jemjasee looked through me even as my mouth covered hers, my fingertips drunk from the touch of her.

Nothing, not my cries or kisses could rouse her.

Sobbing, I screamed, Can’t you see me—don’t you know I’m here!

Then she saw me and backed away. I saw the horror there in her golden eyes. Her shock pierced my translucent heart.

Please forgive me.

Her kind never sheds tears. Jemjasee had told me that on her island in the universe, there were no reasons to cry, but looking into her perfect lavender and green marble colored face, I saw a tear on the threshold of falling.

I was ashamed.

She left by way of the ocean as her ship rose out of the sea.

Condemned, I pace the ragged cliffs, the gulls in flight, the lighthouse behind me, on an endless quest to be with my beloved, forever adrift, because I hadn’t the daring to journey past my sphere.

Slapstick Blues

A Novella by DC Diamondopolous

Booker La Croix liked nothing better than to put on his best hat, hitch a ride from Huddle Creek up to Baton Rouge, and spend his day off in a dark theatre watching the moving pictures. He paid his seven cents for the ticket, went around the side entrance, and climbed the steps to the balcony. The matinee featured his favorite, Buster Keaton, in The Balloonatic and Our Hospitality, and there would be short movies in-between. It’d be a whole afternoon of laughter, except when he looked over, wishing his sister to be sitting there next to him. With Lila Mae gone, his closest friends were books and the flickers.
His brother Jeremiah thought him crazy to spend his day off watching white folks. The youngest of five boys, Booker was always picked on. His brothers nicknamed him Booker for preferring to read over playing ball and sneaking shots of moonshine. They teased him for working in the parish library and laughed at him when he tried to slick back his hair with brilliantine like Rudolph Valentino, but nothing straightened his thick coiled hair.
He opened the door to the dark interior. The theatre still reeked of sulfur from vaudeville days when the audience threw eggs and tomatoes at bungling performers. His pa took him and Lila Mae back in 1910, when he was six and Lila Mae eight, old enough to hoot and holler at the singers and dancers, acrobats, and magicians. He recalled his favorite, monkeys on roller skates and the sounds of feet thumping across the wooden stage—all of it replaced by the magic of moving pictures.
Since the Odeon became a moving picture theatre, not once did he see another colored person in the balcony. Lila Mae said it was important to see how ofays lived. “Why?” Booker had asked. “Just is.” She hated white people and had good reason. But she loved the flickers as much as he did.
He looked over the ledge at the seats below. He saw children, women in gingham dresses with bow hats, and men in suits. A piano was in front of the stage where a woman would play background music while the pictures moved across the screen.
His shoes stuck to the tacky floor. He found his usual seat. It was a chair still hinged in the third row near the center. In the narrow gallery, he smelled the stench of stale piss. But as the lights dimmed, so did Booker’s resentment of having to sit in the buzzard roost ‘cause of his color. He tried to twist prejudice his way, that he was lucky to sit high above the others, alone and uninterrupted. And for a couple of hours he could escape and leave his blues somewhere next to nowhere.
The curtains pulled away, revealing the white screen. Booker leaned forward. A title card appeared, and the piano player struck the keys in a ragtime ditty. Booker eloped into the high jinx of Buster Keaton. He laughed, slapped his skinny thigh, and wondered if Lila Mae had seen the same moving picture.
The Balloonatic ended and then came a short flicker, another comedy, that drew a few chuckles. He slouched in the chair, critical of the less-than-funny moving picture he had just watched.
Booker was starting to doze when a woman appeared on the screen. She was lakeside, dressed in a bathing suit and had shoulder-length hair with a ribbon tied around it. Booker sat up. A title card appeared: “Want to go for a swim?” Three other girls in bathing suits ran to the lake’s edge. There was a close-up of the stunning woman who pushed one of the girls into the lake, and everyone, including the doused girl, doubled-over in laughter. Booker took off his hat and crushed it with his fists.
He sat through another showing of The Balloonatic just so he could see the short and the bathing beauty at the lake. He had to be certain—to make sure that it was his sister, Lila Mae.
For the second showing, he paid attention as the short opened. A card came on the screen with the words, “Famous Players-Lasky Corporation filmed in Hollywood, California.” When each actress appeared, so did her name in the lower right-hand corner. Lila Mae La Croix was now Bessie Blythe and passing for white.
Images flashed across the screen just like his emotions. He juggled rage and sadness, longing and disgust. How could Lila Mae, who watched as white men dragged poor Henry away, live as one of the very people she despised?
Booker yanked at the brim of his hat and slammed the side door as he went out the theatre. He ran down the steps and into the alley. He kept walking. Thinking.
Lila Mae was like the Mississippi. The tumultuous river flowed clear on top, but underneath was the muddy sludge of slavery not sixty years gone.
Booker and his family were a spectrum of colored hues ranging from dark to high yellow, but Lila Mae’s skin was as pale as if she’d been adopted. Their pa had teased, “This child better darken up or they gonna think we stole her.” “She jus’ come up French Creole,” their mama had said. “But she as African as me, ain’t no one gonna take her and nothin gonna change that.”
About the age of twelve, a change did happen. Outside of Huddle Creek, Lila Mae’s color was too risky for Booker and his brothers to be seen with. So she walked alone.
Several years back, when they had gone to the Odeon, Booker’s pride did him in. He insisted that they walk together like any brother and sister. They paid for their tickets and went around the theatre to the alley when two punks jumped him. Lila Mae hit the men, screaming, “He’s my brother! You fuckers! Leave him alone!” When they were through with Booker, they turned to Lila Mae. Through swollen eyes, Booker saw her fear—a fear colored women knew well. He took coins from his pocket and threw them at the men. As they stooped to pick them up, Booker grabbed his sister and they ran up the stairs and into the theatre.
When they got home that night and his parents saw his face, he told them it was his doing, but Lila Mae got a good yelling. She shouted back, mad as any she-devil he had read about.
As Lila Mae grew into her teens and as pretty as any moving picture star, she met Henry. One day, they went on a picnic along the bayou. A gang of men came upon them and lynched Henry for being with a white girl, so they said, or maybe they didn’t need a reason. Lila Mae had screamed and shouted, “I’m colored. Leave him alone!” She said Henry had yelled, “Run, Lila Mae, run. I’ll be coming baby.” She did. She ran all the way home sobbing, tearing into the house and telling her brothers to go help Henry. By the time they got there, he’d been strung up. Wasn’t enough to hang him, they had to set him afire too. When told what happened, Lila Mae went hysterical, ranted for days, cried for weeks. She clutched Henry’s pendant that hung on a chain around her neck like it was part of him. Nothing consoled her and not one thing was done to the men for lynching Henry.
Lila Mae had enough hurt to set the world off its axis. It wasn’t her fault, but the neighbors, the relatives and his own family, looked on her like a troublemaker.
One morning a couple of months after the lynching, Booker heard screaming, bawling, and drawers slamming. It sounded like the whole house would come down from the pain within. He dressed and went out on the porch to see his sister crying, suitcase in hand. Mama sobbed. Pa wiped tears off his cheeks. Stoic Jeremiah tried to keep his mouth from twitching.
Booker picked up the luggage and walked with his sister down the dirt road along the railroad tracks that led out of Huddle Creek to the train depot. Lila Mae cursed something fierce. She was furious at Mama and Pa, livid with the white world, angry at her kin, angry at God, just plain angry.
She was so heartbroken that she left him at the parish limits without saying good-bye. He told her he loved her, but her temper was so vicious he didn’t think she heard.
She was walking the dusty road when she dropped her suitcase, turned, and ran back to Booker. She hugged him and kissed him on the forehead and cheek. “Get out of the South, Booker. Go to Harlem. Join our brothers. Keep your nose clean.” “Is that where you’re going?” he asked. “Maybe, maybe not.” Lila Mae was as double-edged as her color. She left, leaving him with a hurt as big as hers.
Before paved streets turned to dirt roads, Booker thought about hitching a ride home, but the walking stretched his muscles, and his reflections stirred compassion.
He trudged along marshy roads that ran along the swamps. Birds sang to each other, and insects hissed and swarmed. He came upon a group of men hauling logs onto trucks, sweat gleaming off their dark skin, making it shine something beautiful.
Booker planned one day to leave, join his brothers in New York, get a job, go to college, hang out at speakeasies, and listen to jazz. He would join the New Negro Movement and had dreams of becoming a writer.
Booker would keep his sister’s secret. When he had enough money, he’d be leaving, but going west to Hollywood, California.

It was genuine lemon meringue pie, not a bowl of shaving cream in the face. Well, how about that, Lila Mae thought. Bessie Blythe was coming up in the world of moving pictures, but her nose hurt, and her cheeks stung. She wiped pastry from her eyes and glared at Reginald.
“Did you have to throw it that hard?” She took a gob of meringue dangling from her bangs and flung it at the actor.
The crew laughed. William, the violinist, played a fast, lively tune.
“Ah, it wasn’t so hard,” Reginald said, licking his upper lip.
“Keep going,” the director shouted. “I like your gutsiness, Bessie.”
Mr. Jasky wants gutsy? Lila Mae picked up the plate from the table and threw it at Reginald’s head. He ducked. The crew applauded. Reginald darted away but not fast enough. With pie dripping down her chin, Lila Mae hopped on his back.
“Keep it going. Good, Bessie. Now slide down. Slowly. Reginald, turn and kiss her.”
William struck high and low notes on the fiddle. When they kissed, he slowed the tempo.
“All right. That’ll get some laughs,” the director said. “We’ll pick up Monday on the bandstand.”
Lila Mae marched up to Horace Jasky.
“You tell that flat tire to go easy on the face or I’m going to sock him in the kisser.”
“Now look here, Bessie, be a good girl. The audience will love it. You’re not a bit player, but you’re no Clara Bow, either.”
Lila May wanted to sling the pie in Jasky’s face, hard, see how he liked it. Instead, she smiled, “Why I’d slip on a dozen banana peels for a laugh. You know that now, don’t you honey chile?” In less than a year she’d gone from bit player to supporting roles, and the pay increase didn’t hurt either.
She sashayed away, swaying her supple hips off the outdoor set to a side table where she dipped a cloth into a bowl of water and wiped the goop off her face and short, wavy hair.
If Reginald knew he had kissed a colored girl, he would choke to death trying to spit out the black.
Outside of Huddle Creek, no one questioned her race. In Baton Rouge, men tipped their hats. Women smiled and nodded. Once, she was at a newspaper rack reading Picture-Play Magazine when a man bought it for her. Lila Mae resented yet found opportunity in losing herself from one world while slipping into the other.
Workers arrived to take down the set. She took her time cleaning herself and hoped to see the tall colored man who reminded her of everything she’d left behind.
She wanted to hear his deep voice, the Southern drawl that reminded her of steam rising off swamps. She missed the slow-moving beauty of the bayous and longed for her family, especially Booker. Most of all she missed Henry.
Lila Mae looked at William holding his violin like a child as he laid it in its case. He saw her watching him and smiled. She wondered if he had something to hide too. He was handsome—in a pretty way—and had the tender-hearted quality of her baby brother, Booker. He never tried to get her alone or pestered her to neck. She could flirt and play while knowing that William would always be a gentleman. Because they would never be lovers, he was the only white man she would go out with.
William carried his violin case and walked over.
“Want to go to a swanky party?”
“Want to have one now?” Lila Mae glanced around then slid the hem of her dress up her shapely thigh, stuck her thumb and forefinger into her garter belt and pulled out a flask. She uncapped it and offered it to William.
“After you, doll.”
“I insist,” Lila Mae said, looking over at the set.
William took the silver bottle and tossed back his sleek helmet-looking head. “Ah, thank you, Bessie.”
“My pleasure, honey chile.” She took the hootch, drank, and slid the flask into her garter. “What party? When?”
“Tonight. Some big cheese producer is throwing. His assistant said there’ll be a jazz band. Told me to bring my violin, maybe play with them.” William took the rag from Lila Mae’s hand and rubbed piecrust off of her neck. “He said I could bring someone, long as she’s gorgeous.” He gave her the rag.
As a white woman, she was invited. As a colored woman she’d be working in the big cheese’s kitchen.
Lila Mae never saw one colored woman in the moving pictures except once, and she wasn’t even negro; it was a woman in black make-up. It galled her that they wouldn’t hire a colored girl even for the role of a maid.
She finished wiping pastry from her hair when the tall handyman appeared, carrying a ladder to the set. She watched him climb the rungs, his muscles flexing under his sweat-stained work shirt.
“You know him?” William said.
“Why do you ask that?”
“Why else would you be staring at him?”
“Of course we don’t know each other.”
“You’re Southern.” William shrugged. “You must have seen negroes before.”
“‘Course I have.” She threw the rag on the table.
“Hey, doll, they don’t mean anything to me one way or the other. Sometimes I gig with them.”
“You play together?”
“In Chicago—speakeasies. Some joints here.”
Henry’s pendant felt heavy where it made its home against her breast.
“Bessie? How come you look so blue?” He took her hands. “Why don’t you get dolled up and we go to this big shot’s house? Could help your career. Who knows, maybe we’ll see Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.”
“Sure, honey.”
“Let me walk you home.” William raised his elbow for Lila Mae. “I’ll be bringing the best looking Sheba in all of Hollywoodland.”

William held the passenger door of the Model T and helped Lila Mae onto the running board and into the car. When she had stepped onto the porch and saw William’s bugged eyes and intake of breath, she thought maybe she didn’t look as homespun as she felt.
There were so many beautiful women in Hollywood. When Lila Mae got her picture in Photoplay, she couldn’t believe she was right alongside the likes of Lillian Gish and Norma Talmadge. It was a proud lie. Not being able to tell Booker and her kin plum near turned it into nothing.
Lila Mae’s mood was like a pot of grits that sat on her mama’s stove, simmering, right in the seat of her happiness. No matter how famous she got, she’d always be running, looking over her shoulder, wondering when she’d be caught.
The worry gave her headaches. Liquor helped.
When William had walked her home, she could have sworn she saw Booker. The Red Car stopped at Sunset and Vine. She caught a glimpse of a slim, young colored man who wore a hat, low on his brow the way Booker wore his. He climbed the steps, and the Red Car took off.
“A penny for your thoughts,” William said, sitting behind the steering wheel.
“How old is this Tin Lizzie?” Lila Mae shouted over the roaring engine.
“Ten years.” William made a U-turn and took off for Sunset Boulevard.
“Where is this shindig?”
“Beverly Hills.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and matches.
“Want one?”
She took the pack, shook one loose, and put it between ruby-red bow lips. She lit it, inhaled, and gave it to William. She did the same for herself and handed everything back.
Nights in Los Angeles were cold, and Lila Mae’s roommate let her borrow her coat. It didn’t have the fur bands, but when rolled at the cuffs, it showed off the satin lining. Her other roommate had loaned her a peacock headband with sequins. They gussied her up as best they could. The three of them shared often, and more than clothes, also food and news about casting. She wanted to tell them the truth. But the truth was no more her friend than they were. The lie kept her stuck in a closet that had no doorknob or hinges to bust out of. But why live as a servant when she could pass as a moving picture star?
The Ford rumbled along Sunset. The wheels bounced across trolley tracks. Lila Mae held on to her seat. She kept her clutch purse in the coat pocket and the flask in her garter belt.
“You look extra beautiful tonight, Bessie.”
Lila Mae laughed.
“I mean it. You’ve got it.”
“You’re sweet to say so.”
William flicked cigarette ash out the window. “We’ve known each other for over a month. I don’t know anything about you.”
“We Southern girls like a little mystery.”
They passed the Hollywood Athletic Club. As they traveled west, she saw open fields and fewer buildings.
“Where’s your fiddle?”
“In the back seat.”
She turned sideways to look at him. He was handsome in his high collar, and his brown hair slicked to shine. “That’s your real lover, now, isn’t it?”
“You could be my lover,” William said.
With tapered fingers, she stroked his lapel. “Why ruin a good friendship?”
He sighed. She hurt him. Lila Mae didn’t want all the meanness done to her become something she did to others. William no more wanted to be lovers than she did. What a charade they were playing.
She turned forward in the seat. “Can we get on with being friends?”
He nodded.
The Model T clanked and jostled along Sunset into twilight’s shifting shadows.
Lila Mae slid up her coat and took out the flask. They drank until it was empty.
William ducked his head and peered into the dark at a street sign. “What’s that say?”
“Benedict Canyon.”
“That’s it.” He made a right turn where oaks and tall grasses grew on low slopes. William changed gears, and the Model T backfired.
“We going to make it up this hill?”
“Think so. I just don’t want her to stall.”
The nearness of the Pacific clouded the front window.
The automobile sputtered and chugged up a road that was more mountain than hill.
“How far to this shindig?”
“Don’t know.”
They continued to a driveway that zigzagged and climbed until it looked like the heavens were ablaze in lighted splendor.
“Well, slap my head and call me silly,” Lila Mae said, staring at the mansion.
“Look at all those ritzy cars,” William said. “Let me drop you off. I’ll park in the woods.”
“Oh no you don’t. I’m proud to be walking in with the fiddle player. Now, honey chile, once we’re inside, no one’s going to know we chug-a-lugged up Mount Everest in a baby buggy.”
“You’re funny.”
She winked at him and undid all her buttons on the coat, revealing a low-cut Chantilly lace dress.
A man in a dark uniform and knee boots held up his hand and walked toward them.
“Follow the driveway to the end.”
As William made a loop, Lila Mae gaped at the expensive cars.
William parked, reached into the back seat, and grabbed the violin case.
They walked toward the white Spanish-style mansion. Bougainvillea with red blossoms climbed to the second-floor balcony with wrought-iron railings.
In the center of the grounds was a fountain with cherubs.
Oh Lordy, did she want a drink. She hoped no one would look at the scuffed heels of her T-strapped shoes.
A butler greeted them at the front door.
“May I take your coat, madam?”
“Thank you.”
The entrance hall was as large as her bungalow. The centerpiece was a twenty-foot waterfall surrounded by lush palm trees. A man chased a woman up a circular staircase. She squealed. He lunged for her, stumbled, and spilled his drink. The woman turned and kissed him on the mouth.
“We’re in for a wild night,” William said.
“I hope so.”
A waiter approached them with a tray of champagne glasses. William handed one to Lila Mae and took one for himself. Lured by the jazzy rhythm coming from the ballroom, Lila Mae headed toward the music.
They passed jeweled women with bobbed hair and men in arrow collars with trimmed mustaches. She breathed in perfume and cigar fumes—everyone was smoking and drinking.
She drained the champagne glass, and a waiter offered her another.
“You’re supposed to sip champagne,” William said.
“This is the real McCoy. I’m going to get pie-eyed,” she said, guzzling her drink and handing the empty glass to a passing attendant.
She led William through an archway with a life-sized nude statue of a female archer and into an enormous, smoke-filled ballroom.
“Well, shut my mouth,” Lila Mae said. A flapper was swinging from a chandelier as a group of men waited to catch her. “How did she get up there?”
“Beats me,” William said.
Fascinated by the female Tarzan, Lila Mae watched as the ossified woman thrust her bare legs apart to give herself momentum.
“Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit,” Lila Mae said when she saw the woman’s ace of spades.
The flapper let go and fell into the men’s arms. The crowd roared.
William took Lila Mae’s hand and used his violin case to nudge people aside dancing the breakaway. She couldn’t see the band, but what she heard made her want to fast kick her blues away and join in the fun.
When they neared the stage, she let go of William. White and colored musicians, together, were making music. This was no speakeasy but a big Hollywood party. The piano man, drummer, and horn player were colored. It was a more beautiful sight than the sunsets over the Pacific. The future of her people rode the coattails of jazz.
“Put your strings down, honey chile, and let’s pick up our heels,” she said, feeling an edge from the booze.
William went to the stage, talked to the bass player, and set his case on a stand.
They danced the Charleston close to the platform—forward and a tap and back and a tap—swinging their arms. Rubber brassiere couldn’t flatten Lila Mae’s breasts, so she did away with the fashion and let her voluptuous figure jiggle like pudding. She backed William to the side of the dance floor in front of the piano man.
She watched the musician as his fingers ran the black-and-white keys. He saw her and did a double take. Lila Mae shimmied making sure he couldn’t look away.
William grabbed her. “You’re corked.”
“Leave me alone,” she said, shoving him aside. “I’m feeling good for a change.”
The song ended, and the musicians took a break.
“What is it with you and the negroes?”
“Nothing with me and the negroes,” she said, feeling her tongue grow fat. “Go play your fiddle-de-dee.”
“You’re a strange bird, Bessie Blythe. I’ll just be a minute,” William said and climbed on the stage.
Lila Mae looked up at the piano man.
“I like the way you play.”
“Thank you. But ain’t you playin’ with fire?”
His voice carried her home to wet swampy riverbanks, Cypress trees, the backwoods—she didn’t care that her naked arms trembled.
“Just looks that way.”
He studied her for a minute then took a glass off the piano lid and drank.
“How come a beautiful woman like you is lonely?”
“Who says I’m lonely?”
“Where in the South are you from?”
“Near Baton Rouge,” she said, longing for his fingers to play all over her.
“I’m from New Orleans.”
“I can tell. Your accent is smooth, like my mama’s homemade ice cream.”
His eyebrows raised.
She didn’t care that she was brash. Loneliness and love had so much in common.
“Your boyfriend,” he said.
“He’s a friend.”
“Still. Much as I’d like to, best we don’t talk no more.” He pushed the stool from the piano and joined the drummer and horn player.
She started shaking. The burden from her sorrow had nowhere to go. Sweat ran into her headband as she tried to sashay away but instead wobbled to a group of small tables and collapsed on a chair.
“Bessie. Bessie.”
She heard the phony name and looked up at the chandelier. She imagined herself swinging from the lights with no one to catch her, falling splat on the floor, red blood oozing, in the act of dying—oh Lordy, did she need a drink.
“Are you okay?” William said.
“Feeling sorry for myself is all.”
“What about?”
“Nothing honey.”
“Sorry about back there,” he said.
William would always apologize, didn’t matter if he was right or wrong. He carried a torch for her, even if he did prefer his own sex.
“If I told you something, William…” She gulped air.
“Tell me what?”
“Oh, nothing, honey. Just get me a drink.”
“No, doll,” he said. “You’ve had too much. You’re going to be a big star. Don’t ruin your chances with hootch.”
“Then go. I’ll be all right.”
The room twirled in a lubricated blur. She wanted a cigarette, but William was gone.
“May I join you?”
Lila Mae looked up to see a tall, balding man with glasses.
“Suit yourself.”
“My name is Sidney Reid,” he said, sitting across from her.
She knew the name. He was a big-shot director, but she was too drunk to sit up and act interested.
“You’re Bessie Blythe, aren’t you?” He ogled her cleavage.
“My eyes are up here,” she said, blinking.
He chuckled. “Women nowadays look like boys. Flat chests, short hair.” He waved his hand in annoyance. “I’m glad to see a real woman for a change. I saw your last moving picture. For a girl, you’re a decent comedian.” He hunched forward. “I think you’d be perfect for The Lost World.”
“Let’s leave. I have a wine cellar at home, not far from here. We can talk. Be alone.” He moved his hands toward hers. “Did I mention the part is for the leading lady?”
“Well, aren’t you kind, Mr. Reid. I’ll be glad to audition for the part at the studio Monday.”
“Oh. My schedule is full,” he mumbled, “for the next couple of weeks.” He stood.
“Of course it is.” Everything was fake. She’d come to the right town to hide in, while exposing herself to the world. The irony was downright hysterical, but she was too miserable to laugh.
“Nice talking to you, Bessie.”
She looked away, too broken to care about anything.

Unable to sleep, Booker dressed, grabbed his hat, and left the boarding house basement.
He walked up Vine Street, brooding about Lila Mae. The first time he saw her was outside the studio, walking with two girls. He had wanted to run to her, tell her how proud she made him and that he’d seen all of her moving pictures. He needed to get her alone, so he wouldn’t risk her cover.
Booker had followed them, keeping his distance so not to be caught or look to be lusting after white women.
He could hear their laughter a block away. Lila Mae’s hair had been cut to a wavy bob, she smoked, and of the three of them, his sister did most of the talking. Being white gave her confidence. He reckoned happiness could do that.
At Fountain Avenue, he headed east until he came to the Nighthawk. He opened the door.
“Thought you were an early bird,” Al said, wiping a dish, his blond hair poking out like birch twigs under his chef hat.
“Can’t sleep.” Booker took the stool at the end of the counter next to the window. Lila Mae’s house was across the street and three doors down.
“I’ll have the usual.”
“Don’t you eat anything other than eggs? No wonder you’re so skinny,” Al said, turning to the grill.
Booker glanced around the dingy cafe.
“Quiet for a Friday night.”
“Two o’clock, they stagger in. Prohibition’s been great for business.”
Booker chuckled.
Lila Mae’s house was dark. Earlier that day he had watched her leave the studio on the arm of a white man. That sight sickened him. A couple of hours later, as he was eating dinner in the Nighthawk, he heard a car sputter and backfire. It stopped in front of Lila Mae’s house, and out dashed the ofay, all spruced up looking fit for a night of fun. Booker saw his sister dressed in fine clothes and her hair done real pretty. He understood her new life, but not that—not taking a white man as a sweetheart. It got him all twisted inside, but what else was she to do? Yet how could she do it? How long did she think she could get away with passing before someone back home recognized her?
It was over. No reason to see her now.
Al put down the Coca-Cola and went back to making eggs.
Booker sipped the drink. When he had taken the train west and crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico, the porter told him he was free to sit anywhere on the train. At first, he didn’t move. But then he grabbed his hat and suitcase and walked through the cars until he sat among white folks. Accepted, that was the feeling. Looking out the window at the beautiful rose-colored desert, he darned near let his feelings roll down his cheeks.
Al set the plate of eggs and toast in front of him, and Booker ate. He remembered that feeling on the train, when he moved from the colored section and how he sat at a table with clean linen and water glasses. Maybe that’s how Lila Mae felt, like clean linen.
“Sunday I’ll be making ribs.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Where you going?”
“Harlem, New York.”
“Well, you ever come this way again I’ll make you a plate of ribs.”
“Thanks Al. I’ll be sure to drop by if I do.”
Booker looked at the clock behind the counter. It was one-fifteen. He finished eating and drained the rest of the Coca-Cola.
Al gave him the receipt, and Booker paid with a dime tip.
“Good luck in New York.”
“Thanks for your hospitality,” Booker said and left the Nighthawk.
He headed west in the opposite direction of Lila Mae’s house. At the corner, he heard a car rattling toward him. He pulled the hat low on his brow, watched the jalopy turn down Fountain and stop in front of his sister’s house. He saw her stumble out of the car and into the arms of the ofay. Lila Mae was as lost to Booker as Henry was to Lila Mae.

A crowd of people waited for the Red Car at the corner of Sunset and Vine. Booker held a suitcase in one hand and smoothed down the beginnings of a mustache with the other. He might have liked Los Angeles. Its booming ways appealed to him, with ornamental street lamps and telephone poles lining the sidewalks. Homes sprouted everywhere, even in the hills. It was a city free of hunger. You could pick plums, peaches, and oranges right off the trees. But for Booker, it would always be cursed with Lila Mae’s passing.
The Red Car’s metal wheels screeched along the tracks. As it neared, the conductor rang the bell. The doors opened. Booker climbed the steps, paid his fare, and walked down the aisle. He put his luggage on the window seat and sat down.
The Red Car moved, and the suitcase fell forward. Booker snatched it. When he looked up, he damned near pissed his pants.
Lila Mae charged down the aisle. She had dark smudges under her eyes. Her hair tangled, and her mouth curled in a scowl.
“Move over,” she said.
Booker gaped.
“I said, move over.”
He held the suitcase and took the window seat.
“Yesterday—I knew it was you,” she said in a loud whisper. “You been spying on me? What the hell, Booker.”
He was tongue-tied. She wore a sweater jacket over her dress. Her eyes were bloodshot.
“You sure you want to be seen sitting by me?”
“Why you spying on me?”
“I wasn’t going to snitch. I was hoping to get you alone,” he said in a low voice. People stared at them. “I missed you was all.”
“Where you going?” she said.
“Central Station. Where you going?”
“Hair appointment. Downtown.”
Lila Mae opened her handbag, took out cigarettes, and lighted one. She smoked as if taking oxygen and exhaled like it was poison. Booker noticed her chewed fingernails and that her hands shook.
“How’s Mama and Pa?” she said.
“Fine. Brothers send them money every week.”
“The same.”
He glared at people watching them.
They bounced along not saying anything. Booker held his suitcase while Lila Mae sucked and puffed, wagging her leg like it was gearing to sprint off.
“I’m proud of you, Sis,” he whispered. “I’ve seen all your moving pictures.”
“How’d you find me?”
“At the Odeon.”
She stopped shaking her leg. “You’re a real private dick.” She dropped the cigarette, stepped on it and looked sideways at him. “That mustache needs some work.”
Booker touched his fingers to it. “Just started growing it.”
“Oh, Baby,” she said, her voice breaking, “I’m so glad to see you.”
Overcome by sudden affection, all Booker could do was shake his head.
“Thought you might go all hellcat on me,” he said.
“I still might.”
“Sure you want to be seen talking to me?”
“You don’t exist, then I don’t exist.”
“You could lose everything.”
“Oh, Baby, you don’t know nothing.”
“I don’t get it,” he said.
She crossed her arms and pressed her hand to her mouth.
“You all right, Miss?” the conductor shouted above the clacking trolley.
Booker saw him staring at Lila Mae in the rearview mirror.
“Just fine, Mister,” she said—and then, turned to Booker, “Baby, why you leaving without seeing me?”
“I saw you—with your white boyfriend. No reason to stay after that.”
Lila Mae snickered. “He’s a puff.” She glanced at Booker. “Didn’t you see that?”
“All I saw was his color.”
“I cover for William. Without him knowing, he does the same for me. He’s nice. So are my roommates.”
“Long as they think you’re white,” Booker said.
Lila Mae reached up and pulled the bell cord. “We’re getting off.” She stood, holding on to the seat in front.
The Red Car stopped, and she hurried down the aisle. Booker grabbed his luggage and followed.
When he stepped from the trolley, they were in the hustle of automobiles, streetcars, and people. He saw tall buildings that hid the sun. A blast of exhaust from a passing truck made Booker’s eyes water.
“Central Station is close by,” Lila Mae said, crossing the street. “We can talk in Pershing Square.”
They entered the park. Booker passed exotic plants, fruit trees and banana palms.
Lila Mae sat at a secluded bench surrounded by bamboo and flowering trees.
“Put your suitcase between us.”
Booker set it on the bench.
“Tell me about home.”
“Not much to tell. With you not there, Mama and Pa don’t laugh so much.” It was still morning. Several people strolled across the square. “The Juneaus moved. All of them. To Detroit.”
Booker rested his arm on the suitcase. “I thought you’d be happy, being a moving picture star and all.”
“How do our brothers like Harlem?”
“They like it fine. Marvin has a girl. Says she could pass. Like you. Works as a showgirl at a nightclub called the Cotton Club.” Booker leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Marvin said she makes more money than he does.”
He heard Lila Mae sniff and glanced over his shoulder. She was crying.
“Hey, Sis,” he said, taking out his handkerchief. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said, grasping the cloth.
Booker wasn’t one for digging into other folk’s business, except Lila Mae, she seemed to invite it. “Then why are you crying? Afraid of being found out?”
She dabbed her eyes. “No, it’s nothing like that. I just made me a pile of loneliness.”
“How?” Booker said. “You’re a moving picture star. You wear fine clothes, make lots of money. Damn, you pass.”
She took out her cigarettes. “It don’t mean a damn thing.”
Her hurt and anger reminded him of when she left home, walking alone down that dirt road.
“My image on the screen—everything, fake. Tell me Booker,” she said, “how was this all supposed to end happy? I don’t fit anywhere.”
He felt tenderness toward her—wanted to put his arm around her.
“You fit with me. Our family. Maybe those showgirls who could pass.” He sat against the bench as Lila Mae smoked. “With your looks, you could be a showgirl, too.”
He watched his sister scan Pershing Square with its palm trees and landscaped walkways and wondered what she was thinking.
“You know what I saw, Booker? I saw a jazz band with white and colored musicians playing at a ritzy Hollywood party.”
“No kidding.”
Lila Mae seemed to be drinking in a happiness not found in a bottle.
“Tell me about the Cotton Club.”
“Marvin said they have singers and comedy skits. It’s where rich white folks go. For entertainment.”
She started sniffling.
Booker saw the chain that held the pendant Henry had given her. He set the suitcase on the ground and turned to her.
“Come with me to Harlem.” He took off his hat and twirled it in his hands.
Lila Mae stubbed her cigarette out on the bench and let it fall through the slats.
“Baby, I sure pulled one over on them. It’s the queerest thing. People loving you one minute and hating you the next.” She looked at him. “I had a strange sense of power knowing that. But I was the one left hurting.”
“Come with me,” he said. “Join our brothers in Harlem.”
“I wonder how long it would have lasted? Well, my terms. Not theirs.”
Booker gazed at the trees with sunlight and shadows passing through the leaves, not quite believing how it all turned out.
“I’ve saved a little nest egg,” Lila Mae said. “I need to get that and my clothes.”
Booker’s joy swept away his own loneliness. He put his hat on and beamed at his sister.
Lila Mae glanced around the park. “Here,” she said, taking a wallet from her sweater and placing a wad of money in his hand. “Take a sleeper. I’ll meet you in Harlem.”
“Ah, no, Sis. I have me some money of my own.”
“Keep it,” she said.
“You sure?”
Lila Mae nodded.
“Bessie Blythe is going to pull a Houdini,” she said, giving him a wink.


A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

James, as the doctors and staff at St. Mark’s Regional Hospital in San Diego insisted on calling him, applied pancake make-up over the band-aid camouflaging the skin lesion on his chin. He was glad to be home, surrounded by his Nippon figurines, the ornate lampshades with exotic scarves draped over the top, and his trunk of overflowing satin and silk costumes, boas, several strands of pearls, and oodles of costume jewelry. His move to San Diego had been a windfall—the most money he’d ever made doing drag. He lived to entertain. On stage, he was Jasmine and loved. Standing-room only. Now he was sick. How long would he be able to afford his apartment in Hillcrest?

The obituaries from three newspapers spread across the coffee table. Circled in black were the names of seven young men.

Jasmine wanted to live, to work again at Glitter Glam Drag. But James didn’t.

No can do, James. You’re not going to pull me down today. It’s Pride. I’m going to party.

Donna was coming.

At St. Mark’s, the only person who bathed and dressed him, changed his sheets and consoled him, was Donna, the pretty dyke nurse who was now his source for food, medication and shots—his entire life.

It was Sunday, her day off, and she promised to take him to Pride. Jasmine had never missed a parade, but James’s taunts of looking butt-ugly opened more scabs than he had on his body.
Jasmine dressed in black sweatpants and a gold lámay blouse, brushed her long stringy hair, pulled it into a ponytail, and clipped it with a rhinestone barrette. She applied red lip gloss and blue eyeshadow.

When James fell ill and admitted himself to St. Mark’s Regional, the doctor asked how many men he had slept with. Was he kidding? “Honey, how many stars are there in the heavens?” Hundreds, thousands, in parks, bath houses, clubs, from San Fransisco to LA and San Diego. The doctor had kept a straight face when James answered. The nurse turned her back on him.
Gay liberation tore the hinges off closet doors. Men like him left the Midwest for the coasts and found a bacchanal of men, a confectionery of sex and drugs, a feast for the starving who thought they were alone in the world.

James’s life had been about dick and where to get the next fuck. Jasmine’s life was drag, antique stores, and Vogue Magazine.

When his conservative, homophobic, fundamental Christian parents caught him in his mother’s dress and high heels, they demanded, “Get out now and don’t you ever come back.” He promised them, “I’ll live up to your expectations. I’ll make the most of a trashy life.”

Jasmine grabbed a green boa from the trunk and wrapped it around her neck. You think that’ll hide your Kaposi’s Sarcoma, James baited. Jasmine tugged at the feathers that made her neck feel on fire.

Grace Jones’s, “Pull up to the Bumper” boomed from the ghetto blaster. Jasmine wanted to dance, but her legs ached. You can’t even walk, sucker.

“Shut-up, James.” Jasmine said, pulling herself up and moving to the window.

When he heard a car, he backed out of view. James never wanted Donna to know what she meant to Jasmine. He held onto furniture as he made his way to the red velvet couch and sat, poised, waiting. Donna knocked and opened the door.

“Well, don’t you look jazzy,” she said, pushing a wheelchair inside with a rainbow flag attached. You’ll look like a sick bastard in that baby buggy, James bullied. Everyone will know you have AIDS.

“I can’t go.”

“It’s up to you.”

“Are we so pathetic we need a parade?”

“Yes.” Donna pinned a button that read, Gay by birth, fabulous by choice, on his blouse.“We need to pump ourselves up. If we don’t, who will?”

“They want all queers dead. Looks like they’ll get their way.”

“Not everyone. “The Blood Sisters” keep donating blood, and they’re delivering food and medicine.”

“Thank God for lesbians,” he said and wondered if gay men would do the same if lesbians were dying.

Donna released the footrests on the wheelchair.

“I’m not going. Everyone will know I have AIDS.”

“You do, James.”

He looked away, not wanting to disappoint the woman who showed him so much compassion and strength.

“What if I run into someone I know?”

“You’ll know what to say.”

“Like I’m dying of pneumonia. Like all those fake obituaries,” he said, kicking the coffee table. “Fucking closet cases. Even in death.” Jasmine felt the weepies coming on. James scolded, Be a
man. Only sissies cry. But Jasmine was female, too. “In my obit, I want you to put that I died of AIDS. I want everyone to know.”

He held onto the seat of the wheelchair and winced as he pulled himself up. The smell of barbecue wafting in from the open door reminded him of summers back in Kansas City, his mom cooking the catfish that he and his dad caught in the Missouri River, his dog Corky—was she still alive?—joyful memories that always left a wake of loneliness.

Today was supposed to be happy, floats with dancing bare-chested boys, banners, dykes on bikes.

Donna shoved the wheelchair forward. “I’ve brought water and trail mix.”

“Poor substitute for poppers and quaaludes.”

Donna laughed, pushed him outside, and shut the door.

The ocean air breathed vitality into his frail body. He raised his face to the sun and began to gather life like flowers. A bouquet of drifting purple and orange balloons floated high toward the swirling white splashes in a blue background. He heard applause and whistles as he watched a float pass by on Park Boulevard. “Go faster, Donna. I don’t want to miss anything.” For just one afternoon he wanted to wave the rainbow flag and cheer the parade on and forget about himself and all the dying young men.


A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous

I first saw Teresa out my kitchen window back in 1928. Her father, a widower, had moved into our neighborhood. I was kneading dough when I looked up and watched the child glide her sled down a snowbank and slam into a tree. I ran across the street. “Are you hurt?”

She scowled. “Mind your own beeswax.”

I ignored her sass and asked if she would like a nice piece of hot homemade bread. She rubbed her bump with a snow-crusted mitten and shook her head. Teresa repeated the stunt and sailed free all the way to the sidewalk. I clapped my doughy hands. The little one smiled. “Can my pop have one too?”

The next year the stock market crashed, and we plunged into the Depression.

I’d see Teresa walk home from school, alone, shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. We all wore threadbare clothes, but her charity hand-me-downs never fit her growing body.

One day, I invited her to see Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes. Coming out of the theatre, she reached for my hand, such sweetness in her grasp. From then on I became her cheerleader, my pompoms the crocheted scarves and sweaters I made for her.

From the end of the Depression to another War, changes occurred every minute—and right here, in Farmingdale, New York.

In the winter of ‘42, Teresa got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’d be at my window at six o’clock making dinner as she arrived home in a car full of girls. She ran with new found joy up the steps to the front door, turn, wave to her friends and then to me. Her smile brought riches not even Rockefeller could buy.

Teresa had every other Sunday off and we’d have lunch on my back porch. “Oh Aunt Lena, I never knew working with my hands could be so much fun. There’s a lot of us gals, cutting and soldering, doing everything the men did. But our paychecks are nothing compared to what they earned.”

“Well, of course not. Men have families to care for.” My comment hung in the air like a barrage balloon.

Why, I never questioned my pay working in the factory during the First World War. It would’ve been unpatriotic—but this, I kept to myself. Now we could vote. Women smoked. Teresa wore overalls at work—so much had changed.

On a spring day in ‘43, she told me about her promotion. “I work on submarines, welding.” She put down her fork.

“What’s wrong, dear?”

“They’re cramped quarters. My boss rubs up against me. When I told him to stop, he put me out in the rain to weld, knowing I’d get electrical shocks.”

“Can’t you go to his boss?”

She shook her head. “It’s always the girls’ fault.”

I worried that after the war, young women like Teresa, who built our ships, tanks and planes would question traditions. Men wouldn’t stand for it. If I went to work, Roy would raise Cain, though he did let me sell war bonds.

In ‘44, Teresa made management, and our lovely Sunday lunchtimes came to an end. Her new boss, a decent man, depended on her. She worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week and took care of her ailing father.

I helped out by sitting with Pop. One night when she returned late I expressed concern for her coming home alone in the dark.

She laughed. “With the boys gone, we girls can walk anywhere day or night and feel safe. Even Central Park.”

Her breezy comment gave me chills. I saw thunderclouds on the horizon. “You respect our boys who are fighting for our freedom, don’t you?”

“Oh Aunt Lena.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “Of course, I do. But women are fighting for freedom too. Just not on battlefields.”

The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, but it dragged on in the Pacific.

Teresa’s final promotion came in early June. She oversaw seventy-five women in the construction department. I couldn’t have been prouder of her.

On August 15, the radio blared, “Official! Truman announces Japanese surrender.”

“Aunt Lena, Uncle Roy!”

We all had tears in our eyes as I opened the door.

“I’m going to Times Square, then on to the shipyard. Can you look in on Pop?”

“Of course, dear.” A car waited for her. The girls waved flags. I held up two fingers making a V for Victory. “Do tell me everything that happens.”

Roy and I went back to the radio. We heard about the thousands of people who turned out in cities across America. I imagined the red, white and blue rippling and waving, confetti and ribbons, wet eyes and cheering—if only our beloved FDR had lived to see it.

That night we grew anxious as the hours passed and no word from Teresa.

The next morning I recall burning myself on the skillet. My mind filled with worry about our girl. Then from my kitchen window I saw her come out the front door. She wore slacks and a blouse and marched down the walkway to the car. Rigid—with dark smudges beneath her eyes.

I ran across the street. “What’s the matter?”

“We wouldn’t quit, so they fired us.”

A girl in the car said, “With the boys coming home, we got canned.”

“Of course. They’ll need their jobs back.”

Teresa glared at me. “My boss told me to get married and have babies.”

“What did you expect?”

Teresa opened the car door. “I expected more from my country.”

Back then I didn’t understand the full impact of the war and what its aftermath meant to our daughters.

Now with Roy gone and Teresa out west, I think about those days and the car full of girls who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I know now as I watched them drive off to gather and speak up for their rights that what I saw was the future.

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?”


“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.”


“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!

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.


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?”


“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.



“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?”


“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.


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.”


“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.