“A Tale as Old as Time”, by Jeff Lawrence a.k.a. Ma Bell
The sun shone bright that day in the village just north of Bordeaux near the confluence of the Dordogne
and Garonne rivers. It had been an unusually brisk and rainy Spring. With the warmer temperature,
Antoinette took the opportunity to open the windows to let her precious poodle, Mira, bask in its
warmth. A cool but slight breeze animated the curtains, reminding them that Summer had not yet
arrived. She also knew that usually meant rain would be coming later that evening.
It was a Friday afternoon and the streets outside Antoinette’s window began to fill with villagers who
were as eager as she was to enjoy their good fortune. She decided that the weather was a good excuse
to adorn the straw hat she hadn’t worn since last Summer with red flowers she grew in a clay pot on the
windowsill and take Mira for a stroll about town. She joined a growing crowd of villagers, exchanging
nods and making mostly small talk, and made her way toward Armand’s Café, which was down the hill
amongst a row of store fronts situated along the banks of the Garonne.
With its brightly colored awnings providing shade from the Summer sun and gentle rains, along with
views of the seasonal sailboats, Armand’s was a popular gathering place for the locals to enjoy several
glasses of inexpensive wine – Bordeaux of course – and debate the topics of the day. Antoinette settled
at the end of a table and ordered a glass of wine. Preferring not to contract dysentery, she declined the
offer of water, but did ask for bread and grapes. Slowly, others trickled in and were seated at the tables
on the small patio until a group of revelers filled it. Before long, the table had several bottles, and the
crowd grew proportionally more boisterous.
Being a small village, Antoinette knew or recognized everyone at the café. Some of the more prominent
gentlemen in town were there, including Auguste, the banker and Marcel, a tax accountant, as well as,
Raymond, one of several vintners in the area, and his two best field hands, Jean and Louis. There was
even Lucien, the town doctor, who pompously felt the need to wear a top hat even at this informal
gathering of friends and neighbors.
Several of the town’s eligible bachelorettes also came in and each quickly sidled up to one of several
gentlemen already there. Antoinette noted with great delight that the hats the other women wore were
not nearly as festive as hers. And so she gave Mira a satisfying smile while pretending not to be
judgmental. Lucienne, Lucien’s nurse, walked in and everyone chuckled to themselves. The similarities
of their names caused quite the confusion when medical attention was required. It was also rumored
amongst the townspeople that they were having an affair. Antionette knew this to be true, as she had
more than once seen a disheveled Lucienne leaving the doctor’s office long after hours. As she
sauntered in, Lucienne spotted Jean, sat next to him and devoured his every word. Despite his lower
class, Jean was known to be a very good storyteller. Even Antoinette was somewhat enamored by him
but pretended instead to pay attention to Mira. Secretly, she was drawn to the more muscular Louis.
Both of them being quiet and reserved, it seemed nothing would ever happen between them though.
Eventually, a conversation struck up about what kind of men’s hats were sexier to women – the classic
straw hat or a derby. The conversation spread slowly across the patio until everyone was debating the
topic, or some derivative from it. Of course, the rugged Jean and Louis made strong arguments for straw
hats. Antoinette noticed that not only did Lucienne seem to agree, but also that Gabrielle and Catherine
stared at Jean and past the men attempting to engage them in conversation. Lucien robustly attempted
to advocate for top hats. But as everyone dismissed him, he cornered poor Marcel until Marcel deftly
made up a story to excuse himself from the situation. Meanwhile, Raymond in his derby and Victor, the
engineer, in his straw hat descended upon poor Margeurite, both attempting to woo her back to their
place for the evening. She was having none of it but still blushed at the attention.
In every group of people, there is always that one person who nobody likes but has to tolerate. In this
case, it was Jacques, the arrogant heir to one of the largest cabernet sauvignon wineries in the region.
His family wielded enormous influence over the town’s fortune, and everyone knew it. So when Jacques
strolled in wearing a clownishly large linen jacket and no hat, his confidence boosted by his father’s
status as well as the very expensive wine emanating strongly from his breath, everyone slowly exhaled.
Not one to be ignored and a notorious close-talker, he leaned into Lucienne and Jean to join the
conversation, briefly arguing that wearing no hat was sexier. He had attempted unsuccessfully many
times to court Lucienne, but he wasn’t about to give up. For nobody said no to Jacques! Jean, knowing
his place, kept his mouth shut but seethed underneath his hat. Disgusted by Jacque’s breath and his
arrogance, Lucienne politely asked him to step back and turned away from him and back to Jean. Louis
just shook his head and poised for action were Jacques to pursue the matter further. He himself once
had a thing for the effervescent Lucienne, but knew she was more interested in the outgoing Jean. He
and Jean were like brothers, so Louis kept that to himself. However, he was still secretly protective of
After loudly ordering two more glasses of wine then guzzling them, he turned his attention to
Antoinette. Relieved that he was leaving Jean and Lucienne alone, Louis turned his attention to the
other side of the patio where Raymond and Victor still tried to talk Marguerite out of her dress. They
seemed harmless, and she was holding her own. So he kept a side eye on Jacques’s movements on
Antoinette. Antoinette loathed Jacques as much as everyone else in town and picked up Mira to leave.
Jacques quietly slipped out behind her, and Louis followed.
Keenly aware of Jacque’s presence but pretending not to notice, Antoinette and Mira strowed up the hill
on a side street this time. At a particularly shadowy portion of the street, cut her off and attempted to
force her into a deep doorway. But Antoinette was ready. In one motion, she unsheathed a dagger from
her thigh, plunged it into Jacque’s gut and upward toward his chest. He fell instantly back into the
shadows of the street and blood began to pool around his body. Louis had turned the corner just in time
to see this happen, and both he and Antoinette looked around to see if anyone else had. Knowing the
danger, Louis quickly grabbed the dagger and hid it in a deep pocket.
The streets nearby were abandoned while the revelry continued several blocks away at. Almost as if he
had done this before, Louis picked up Jacque’s body, hoisted it over his shoulder, and started back down
the hill toward the river. After wading through 50 feet of tall grass and marsh, he slipped the body into
the river, rinsed the blood off his arms and hands, and waded back to the street and up to where
Antoinette was standing stunned. A light rain began to fall as she had predicted earlier in the day,
washing the blood away and down the street.
Louis and Antoinette exchanged a smile, she picked up Mira, and they headed toward her house. Louis
knew to stay a few feet behind so as not to attract attention or elicit any gossip amongst the nosey
townspeople. But Antoinette looked over her shoulder, and Louis knew what that meant. When they
arrived at her place, she went in the front door while he snuck around back, where she opened a rear
entrance to let him in and poured him a glass of Bordeaux. It appeared Antoinette and Louis would
“happen” after all. What an afternoon!
Runners Up (in no particular order):
“Fire”, by Rob Bartilucci a.k.a. Kwikstop
Sally surveyed the scene in front of her with a quite apathy. It was entirely too many people gathered in
such a small space to “watch” the regatta. She doubted the men there would even notice if a sailboat
suddenly spontaneously combusted into flames since their attention was so focused on the ladies
present. She took yet another sip of her drink because at least it was something to do, while the man on
her left prattled on about some topic that she could not even feign to have the slightest interest in.
However, the next table over, in front of her held at least a modicum of intrigue on this dreadfully
boring afternoon. It certainly did not come from the vapid lady who had brought her dog and was now
having a full conversation with the animal and Sally guessed probably not even holding up her end. No,
it was certainly the two dock workers who had somehow worked their way in to the soiree. Just as they
had seemed to suddenly appear at the party, a large number of wine bottles had appeared at their table
as well. The younger of the two had seemed to catch the eye of a young lady at the party, however the
gentleman suitor who had accompanied her did everything he physically could to position himself
between them and was none too happy with the situation.
Sally did not know who the young women was, as she had never been to any of the previous parties.
However, in her mind she created the name of Fawn for her in equal parts because of the doe eyed look
she was giving the young dock worker and because of her baby deer like nature of being completely
unaware of the predators around her. She gave the name of Rich Boy to the jealous suitor because he
appeared to have no qualities making him deserving of a name to differentiate him from the others at
the party just like him. She then settled on Rich for short. Upon the dockworker she bestowed the
name of Storm because she sensed a fury behind his bright blue eyes.
Sally watched as the dance played out before her. It started with Rich leading with several small jabs
about Storm’s occupation, asking if he needed to get back to the docks, if his boss knew where he was.
Storm countered back with pointed responses that Rich likely wouldn’t be able to find his way to any
place where real work was done. The dance continued with these moves and counter moves and
soothed Sally into an almost trance like state. A quiet state that was abruptly shattered as Rich threw a
crushing body blow in place of the subtle jabs. The last bottle of wine had been poured and Rich had
suggested of course they should get another for the lady. He purposely suggested a more expensive
wine he knew Storm could not possibly afford. The blow appeared to land as the red of embarrassment
and rage crept into his cheeks. However, Storm recovered as the wine arrived and landed his own shot
as he suggested he and Fawn could find better uses for this fine afternoon then just mindless drinking.
The shot landed harder then expected when Fawn gave out a giggle and cast a coy smile to Storm.
The next moment happened in a frenzied blur. Rich reached to grab his wine from the table and made
sure to give a hard bump to Storm, knocking him into the table. His cigarette flew from his mouth, the
table shook and the wine bottles toppled over and shattered. The vapid lady squealed “Ohh Pippy” as
the dog was drenched in spilled wine (Later Salley would bemoan that she had named the dog Prince in
her mind when it was obvious this woman would name it Pippy). As Rich prepared to give a sarcastic
“Sorry” Storm pushed the man back knocking him to the ground. Fawn unintentional threw fuel on the
fire when she let out her second laugh of the afternoon. Rich now thoroughly embarrassed stood with
rage in his eyes. Sally’s heart froze as she saw his eyes going toward the jagged broken wine bottle. His
face had become a mask of something not quite human as he reached for the bottle. Just then a loud
yell came from the man behind her. “Fire!” The cigarette had set the tablecloth ablaze. Rich changed
his mind and sulked off as the other men rushed past his to smother the fire with their jackets.
Sally gave a bemused smile as she surveyed the scene in front of her and realized she had been
mistaken. It seemed a fire was capable of diverting the men’s attention from their trance-like romantic
No Title, by Sam Gapinski a.k.a. Callahan
From time to time, I will forget the name of a person while retelling a story to my friends or family. It’s one of those deals where it’s on the tip of my tongue, but I simply cannot remember. No matter how hard I try, the right name refuses to come to mind. What’s worse is when some other name pops into my head that I know isn’t the right name. Like, I know it’s not the right name, but then that’s the only name I can think of. It invades my stream of consciousness and stymies my efforts to find the rightful name. My mind starts to bargain with itself. I know the name of the person I’m trying to remember isn’t Nick, let’s say, but I convince myself to consider the idea that perhaps the actual name starts with the letter N. But it’s a trap. It never starts with N. The real name is something completely different. Like Antonio. Or James. Or Darryl. But it sure as hell is not Nick, and it sure as hell doesn’t start with N. My idiot brain can’t move on from Nick though. It gets stuck in this endless cycle of knowing it’s wrong, but convincing itself that, you know, maybe Nick is right.
The bum in the top left corner staring off into space like a sociopath is Nick. Which is to say, we don’t know his real name. All we know for sure is that he’s significant enough of a figure to have a story told about him, but insignificant enough that our memories can’t produce his actual name. You’d think a guy with triceps like that would command a few more megabits in the old noggin. Alas, he’s just posted up at the rail, putting out a vibe that will never be reciprocated. Do you notice how no one is paying him any attention? The other 13 people in the painting couldn’t care less about poor Nick. Hell, the woman in front of him would rather make out with her dog than acknowledge he exists. It’s a tough deal, Nick. You’ll bounce back. You always do.
Then there’s Lenny. He’s the chap sitting across from Ms. Poochsmooch. Poor Lenny has been trying to grow a mustache for a decade, but all he’s been able to muster is a slight shadow of masculinity. He and Nick are related, as can be inferred by their shared fashion sense.
You see the gal leaning over the rail looking longingly into the eyes of the dude wearing the brown hat? Did you realize she’s been married three times already? I’m just saying, buddy, look before you leap, if you catch my drift. Brown hat guy is already a lost cause. Her siren song has him down bad. Sucker.
Toby is the cat wearing the cardigan in the middle of the summer, like a damned fool. Lenny has the right idea. There’s a reason Toby’s girlfriend, Darlene, is ignoring him in favor of the Len-meister. You see, back in the 1800’s (or whatever year this painting was meant to be set), common sense used to be an attractive trait. Toby could use a few more life lessons from Lenny if he wants to keep a girlfriend in the future. It’s alright, Toby. You have to lose a few to make the wins more meaningful. She’s kinda ugly, anyway.
The guy in the way back wearing the brown cloak – he and Toby would get along I’d bet – I don’t know about you, but he strikes me as the type of person who believes they are more of an intellectual than they really are. All he wants to talk about is cryptocurrency and NFTs. No one gives a rat’s ass, bro! Mr. Tophat himself must be thinking about all the decisions he’s made in his life that led to him standing opposite brown cloak guy who, by the way, can’t seem to stop blowing cigarette smoke into his face. You can just tell that Tophat has tried two dozens times to steer the conversation toward sports or sailing, or anything but the fall of Rome, but Cloaky McCloakerson won’t have it. “And don’t even get me started on Jim Garfield winning the election,” says Cloak. “Alright,” says Tophat. A short beat, then Cloak takes a drag off his cigarette. “I mean the election was rigged, and those rotten successionist are to blame. There’s no way a dude named Garfield can be president.”
I guess I shouldn’t end this diatribe without addressing what’s happening in the upper righthand corner. I imagine most of my fellow contenders will spend a fair amount of time on what may or may not be happening there. I will just pose this one question.
What the hell?
Last thing. One constant in this life of ours, one thing that hasn’t changed from the year 1880 to today? Small dogs are still the absolute worst, and their owners are too.
That’s it! That’s the meathead’s name. Ben. I knew it’d come to me eventually.
“The Dog”, by Robert Hofheimer a.k.a. Shipyard
“Thank you for coming in. He’ll see you now.”
You look up at the officer standing at the door, wipe your hands on your jeans, and slowly stand up. You catch
yourself wincing a little at the grinding of your knees as your legs straighten out but that’s not new. The officer’s
smile stiffens a little, her eyes quickly scanning you up and down.
She nods her head towards the hallway behind her and you dart your eyes back down to the plastic chair to be
sure you didn’t leave anything behind, but come on man you didn’t fucking bring anything with you so what was
that all about?
You follow her down the hallway and hear the murmur of conversations behind the closed doors rising and
falling as you pass each one. There’s someone crying loudly in one room and you hear a blubbering sneeze
that’s overtaken by the sound of phones ringing as you near the next room. Why’d you even come here?
Things were definitely weird at the house since this weekend and then the detective called asking you to come
down to talk you thought why not, there’s nothing you’ve done, but damn this place makes you nervous.
She opens the door to room 17B and you follow her inside. Fuck this looks just like an interrogation room from
those cop shows – a few stiff-backed metal chairs around a metal table, blank dingy white walls. What the fuck
is this all about?
“Sorry, this is the only room they had available. Have a seat and he’ll be right in. Do you want some coffee or a
She genuinely looks apologetic which relaxes you a little, but only a little.
“Yeah a water, thanks.”
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
The door springs closed behind her and the room is suddenly very quiet aside from the scrape of your chair
against the floor as you pull it from the table and then sit down facing the door. Should you have gotten a
lawyer? Right, like you you have a fucking clue how to “get” a lawyer. And what the fuck for, you didn’t do
anything and you don’t really know anything but still this is fucking weird. Why do they want to talk to you
anyway? You feel your left leg start to shake and then the door opens again and you quickly steady it with your
hand. A guy in a suit gives the doorknob a little shove and ducks his shoulder to avoid the quickly closing door,
trying not to drop the plastic water bottle tucked under his arm. His other hand gingerly balances a cell phone
on top of a coffee cup on top of a notepad.
“Hey AJ, thanks for coming in. I’m detective Hartwell, sorry to keep you waiting.”
He puts the phone, then the coffee, then the notepad onto the table across from you and then with his finally
free hand grabs the water bottle from under his arm and holds it out across the table for you.
“Thanks” Your leg is still shaking and you hope he doesn’t notice. The bottle is cold and covered in
condensation. You put it on the table in front of you, look at your wet hand for a moment, then wipe the cold
water across your forehead and into your hair.
“Sure thing. So let me get right to it. The sheriff asked me to help try to find out what happened to Sophie
Street and since you work for the Streets I thought you might have seen something that could help.”
What? Something’s happened to Sophie? Your mind races trying to remember when you saw her last.
Definitely last weekend when they had that party, but had you seen her since? Maybe Monday or Tuesday
around the gardens?
“So how long have you worked for the Streets?
“Uh about three years I think.”
“And you’re a handyman?” He pulls a pen from his suit pocket, clicks it open, and places it down on the
“Yeah pretty much. I fix stuff around the property and help keep the buildings in shape. Replacing rotting
boards, fixing fences, repainting stuff. Sometimes I help Bill with big stuff in the garden – clearing fallen trees or
repairing retaining walls.” He seems relaxed which calms you a little but you still find your eyes darting
between his face, the phone, and the notepad.
“And that keeps you pretty busy?”
“Uh hmm. There’s always something.”
“Do you know the Streets well?
“Uh I guess? Did something happen to Miss Sophie?” Your voice cracks a bit and you open the water bottle to
take a sip. You wipe your wet hand on your jeans as he looks at you, studying your face for a moment, glances
down at his notepad, and then rests his right hand on the pen and starts slowly tapping his fingers along its
length – pointer pinky pointer pinky pointer pinky…
“Honestly, we’re not sure. The family says they haven’t seen her since the party last weekend after that storm
came through. I’m trying to help figure it all out.”
You feel the color drop from your face. Do they think you had something to do with this? Your throat tightens
and you reach for more water taking a big swig. The detective’s eyes widen as he watches your reaction. Shit,
now you look guilty.
“Have you seen her since the storm?”
“On the boat back to the house, but I’m not sure after that.”
“Let’s start with the party. What can you tell me about that day?”
It was another Glenn clusterfuck. Around the Streets he was all buttoned up and sucking up but with the rest of
the staff he was pure chaos, always coming in with shit that had to be done right then. Sure it kept you busy
but the days when you could actually do the work you were supposed to be doing were rare.
“I was supposed to work on repairing part of the bulkhead down by the river and had hauled all my gear down
there when Glenn comes screaming down the road in the house cart and tells me Mr. and Mrs. Street are taking
a bunch of folks for a picnic down river and he needs my help getting it set up”
“Glenn Havlock right? He works at the house too?”
“Yeah, Glenn’s kinda like the boss of the house, aside from the Streets, I guess, but sometimes I think he’s
more in charge than they are, you know?”
Hartwell stops tapping the pen and nods to you and takes a sip of his coffee.
“So I get in the cart with Glenn and we head back to the main house. Glenn tells me to bring all this stuff down
to the dock and load it onto boat.”
“There were a few big trunks, some tables and folding chairs, some big coolers of food and booze. Took me 3
round trips from the main house to get it all down there in cart. By the time I’ve got the boat loaded up, I see a
string of 4 or 5 cars coming down the road from the main house.”
“Who was there?”
“I didn’t know all of them, but Mr. and Mrs. Street, Miss Sophie, and Miss Sophie’s friend Mr. Saunders were
there. And Glenn… and Miss Sophie’s friend Rebecca”
Hartwell makes a quick note on his pad. “Did Sophie Street bring her dog?”
The dog? What’s that dog got to do with anything? Annoying little thing.
“Yeah she did. Made a little fuss about it too. Glenn had to go back up the house and get him before Miss
Sophie would let us leave. I’m not sure I’d ever seen her without it.”
“So what happened on the boat?”
“Once the Sweets and their guests were on board, Glenn had me help Tom heave off from the dock.”
“Yeah Tom’s the Street’s boat guy. He takes care of all of their boats and the boathouse. Good guy. Getting
under way took a while ‘cause the guests were pretty rowdy.”
Fuck you hope you don’t get Tom into any trouble. He’s always had your back.
“Uh just a little drunk, I guess, but I don’t really know. And the dog kept running around on the deck by the dock
lines. I almost tripped on him a few times. Miss Rebecca was laughing at it all with Miss Sophie. They were all
joking about putting on the costumes too.”
“Yeah, those trunks were filled with fancy dresses and old timey hats. I stayed up on the deck to help Tom spot
driftwood but I could see them through the windows. The women kept coming in and out of one of the state rooms in different outfits and laughing. Mr. Street wore a tuxedo and a huge top hat but most of the men just put on a hat or a sweater from the trunk.”
It had been such a clear sunny day. Warm with a gentle breeze. The river was a little lower than the last time
you’d been out there – almost a year ago? – you’d told yourself you needed to find another time to get down on
the water soon but when could that happen now?
“It didn’t take too long to get down river to the clearing and after we helped the guests off the boat, Glenn had
us unload everything then Tom and I set up the tent and tables.”
“Glenn didn’t help?”
You snort a little “no, just me and Tom. Glenn was off with the guests”
The detective made a quick note without breaking eye contact with you. How’s he do that?
“After we get the tent and the tables set up, the guests come rolling in and start cracking open the wine and
laying out the food. I hear the dog barking on the boat so Tom and I walk back to look for it. The damn thing
was running around in circles on the deck barking like crazy and as soon as we got on board it stops, looks at
us, and takes a shit right on the dockline. We try to catch him, and he runs all through his own shit. Tom finally
grabs him and carries him to shore.”
Hartwell is smiling a little.
“That’s when Glenn comes up wearing this funky brown hat with these two goofy straw hats in his hands. He
tells me and Tom that the Streets want us to be in costumes too. Tom’s shirt is covered in the dog’s shitty
footprints so he takes it off so he’s just wearing that straw hat and his tanktop. I start laughing a little and then
Glenn says ‘you need to match’ so I take my shirt off too. There we are, the help walking to a party wearing
tank tops and straw hats.”
“The dog starts barking again as soon as we see the tent and Miss Sophie called out to us and asks us to sit
and eat with them.”
“Is that unusual?”
Miss Sophie had always been kind, but like all the Streets she kept her distance from you and the rest of the
staff. Except Glenn. But something had felt different that day. It wasn’t just the costumes, Glenn was more
jittery than usual, and there was just a strange feeling in the air.
“My first time eating with them. I didn’t really feel comfortable sitting, but Tom sat right down. Glenn never had
much trouble with that either and was chatting closely with Miss Rebecca. I just stood by Miss Sophie in case
the dog tried to run, but she had that thing sitting on the table eating grapes out of her hand.”
“Yeah we’d be lucky to live half as nice as that little dog.”
“Did Sophie talk to you about anything?”
“Not really. Mostly she just whispered to her dog.”
“What about her boyfriend?”
“Mr Saunders? They didn’t really talk that I saw. He was talking to some other lady at the table, leaning in real
close. But Miss Sophie didn’t seem to notice anything other than her dog.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well like with the storm. Suddenly it gets really windy and dark, then the rain just dumped down. Everyone
stopped talking, but Miss Sophie was still just whispering to her dog. The wind was nuts. The tent pulled right
out of the ground, posts and all, and blew into the river. Everyone was scrambling and I’m trying point people
back to the boat but Miss Sophie just stayed in her seat whispering to the dog. Finally, I had to grab her
shoulders and tell her to run back to the boat.”
You remember the glassy look on her face. Like she was someplace else altogether, just her and that dog.
“All the guests got back to the boat and me and Tom got what we could on board and then shoved off to get
back to the main house.”
“So Sophie made it on board?”
“I don’t know. I think so. Yeah, she did. She was sitting with her dog, next to Glenn and Miss Rebecca.”
Glenn and Rebecca were talking still, but Sophie just held that dog and stared out the window.
“How’d the ride back to the house go?”
“Everyone was pretty quiet on the ride back. And the weirdest thing – the docks at the house were totally dry
and so was the road to the main house. That storm must have just hit us down river and totally missed the rest
of the Street’s place. The guests loaded into their cars and drove off and I helped Tom to unload everything.
When I got the stuff back to the main house, Glenn told me to home for the day.”
“When was that?”
“Six-ish, I guess? It was still light out for sure.” You’d thought about heading back to the river, but could barely
keep your eyes open and we’re still soaked from the rain.
“Do you remember seeing Sophie Street after that?”
“I don’t think so, but the next morning when I came to check in with Glenn at the main house I ran into Bill. He
was pissed because the dog was loose in the front circle and was destroying all of the red flowers.”
“Did the dog do that a lot?”
“Not really. It didn’t get out into the flower beds much, and I don’t think I’d ever seen it out of the house that
early in the morning. We usually wouldn’t see the dog at all until after Miss Sophie had had her breakfast.”
Hartwell quickly wrote something on his notepad. His phone lights up, he glances at it, frowns quickly, then
puts his phone and the pen back into his suit pocket. His chair scrapes loudly on the floor as he stands up.
“Thanks AJ, this has really helped a lot, but let’s get you out of here.” He hurries you through the door, back
down the hall and through the waiting room. At the door to the station he turns to you again.
“If there’s anything else you see or remember, please let me know.”
“Uh, ok, will do.”
You squint in the sunlight as you walk down the sidewalk away from the station. You’re still a little stunned by
the quick end to the interview. You check your phone expecting to see a text from Glenn asking where you are
but you don’t have any messages. Guess that means you’ll finally get to finish the bulkhead repair.
“The Convincing of Chouchou”, by Art Berger a.k.a. Clockwork
“No dogs allowed.”
I was standing on the pier of the Saint-Érasme Boating Club for the first time. It was the first truly hot day of summer. I had thought just moments ago how lucky I was to have completed the registration, the training, the vetting process just in time to enjoy such a day on the lazy River Seine. No one had mentioned the dog restriction in the nearly year long process to become a member of the club. I tried to explain this to the skipper in charge of readying the boats. He blinked. I blinked. The silence dragged on.
The dog is such a small thing. We would only need a small keelboat. Surely that is not too much trouble. He blinked again. I blinked again. The sun was strong. The silence, stronger.
Finally, I turned and shuffled back down the pier, the affenpinscher I inherited from a recently deceased relative nipping after me. I was at a loss on what to do, and getting hotter by the moment. The light-knit jacket I brought to protect from sun and wind on the water was now a cruel heat trap, a suffocating reminder of my humiliation on my first day of being a card-carrying member of the Saint-Érasme club. But to take it off would be to concede that I had been thwarted, that I would not be getting on the water today. And get on the water I would, even if I had to send Auntie Marge’s beloved Chouchou to meet her former master.
But even as such a dark thought passed through my darker mood, the clouds lifted as I beheld the restaurant Maison Fournaise. Here, dogs were indeed allowed. Here, my compatriots gathered, the future of France, young souls with bright eyes and free hearts that would never dream of imposing dusty rules on their friends. Here, bread was served, not with old countryside butters and musty marmalades, but with spicy curries and never-before-tasted chutneys out of the mysterious Ind. The latest fashions were found here; the latest thoughts and ideas were discussed here. Here, I would find both a welcome and a solution for Chouchou.
In such high spirits, I came upon the balcony, and under the comfort of the shade. With the first few gentlemen I saw, I smiled and made a few passing remarks about the weather, but I did not engage them about my troubles with Chouchou. They seemed too much of the responsible sort. But I soon espied a merry group of artists and actresses, and was sure I would find a sympathetic audience.
Paul said the true cur on the pier that day was the skipper, and Eugène quite concurred. Jeanne declared that she was moved to tears at the plight of Chouchou, which reminded her of poor, abandoned Dido standing on the Carthaginian shore as she watches her untrusty lover leave her behind with child, whom she happened to be playing in a revival of Dido and Aeneas at the Théâtre du Ranelagh. Yet when I suggested that perhaps they could keep Chouchou for the day while I take out a boat, their interest in the dog evaporated. Something about running lines and prior commitments was murmured before they spun away.
As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. I carried on. I changed tactics. I offered rides, wines, coins, other incentives. I struck out each time. Another saying goes that dogs take after their owner, and Chouchou had apparently inherited Aunt Marge’s ability to be simultaneously admired and eschewed by all around her. Perhaps a trait I, too, had inherited.
Finally, I made it to the last table on the balcony. I pled my case to Angèle and Gustave, but I knew they were a lost cause, in more ways than one. My true goal was in hopes that I would be overhead by the others present. Chouchou was helping by attracting the attention of a young lady I did not know, as the owner’s son, Fournaise Jr., watched on. Sporting a peasant’s straw hat, he looked like the simple and dependenable sort that enjoyed animals in general, and dogs in particular. But he also proved impassive, as blinking as the skipper had been, though with a twinkle of amusement in his eye.
I sighed and motioned to Chouchou to come along with me. I suppose I would not do Chouchou in; how could I reject a poor creature as rejected as me? Besides, it was so hot, I was tired, and I would never actually intentionally kill a poor beast. But as Jeanne was living proof, one can imagine oneself as more of a grandiose hero than one actually is.
Aline, the woman who had been petting Chouchou, abruptly stood up and followed me. “Monsieur Renoir,” she said, “I have an idea.”
I stopped, suddenly in the sun after all the time under the balcony, and blinked rather stupidly.
She opened a rather large tote bag that she had with her, and as if a mind-reader, Chouchou hopped right in. “I am sure it is pleasanter on the water today, don’t you think?” I blinked again, then smiled. Soon, we found indeed that it was pleasanter on the water.
“The Lunch to Forget at Mabel’s Crossing”, by Jamie Roseborough a.k.a. Repeato
The invitation arrived via courier in late winter of 1846 as expected providing the usual details of next July’s annual assemblage. This year’s annual ‘Gathering of the Washburns’ formal invitation brought along much anticipation for Charlotte Washburn as springtimes often do. Charlotte, the wife of Thaddeus, pictured here in his straw hat, thick beard, and undershirt leaning on the porch railing, is a precocious and bored trouble-maker who knows exactly which of Thaddeus’s many buttons to push and more comically, when. Charlotte is on the right holding her cheek that still stings from the back of Thaddues’s left hand.
You see, these annual Washburn Gatherings always seem to occur when one of five Washburn boys has had either recent great success or failure, always prompting some form of jealousy, spirited ridicule, or downright relentless browbeating for the duration of the gathering. Thaddeus is the oldest followed by Gregory seated in a backwards chair, then Lawrence who’s weakened immune system has him in two sweaters in the middle of the summer, then Herbert who is uncomfortably close consoling Charlotte with a precariously placed hand on the small of her back, and finally baby Beauregard on looking from the far back corner.
As usual, the invitation requested the honor of everyone’s presence by mid-morning, where the men would take off for the lake for canoeing and cane pole fishing while their ladies would catch-up with one another over tea in the main house. And by catch up, it’s more like a relentless game of one upmanship only the wife of a Washburn could carry on year after year trying to receive the impossible approval of the Washburn matriarch, Harriet. This perpetual pursuit was a larger waste of time than any Washburn wife could ever admit. Harriet’s husband and leader of the Washburn boys, Cornelius, had passed away three years prior, changing most everything in everyone’s lives. It absolutely changed the annual Gathering of the Washburns.
After their time at the lake and in the main house, each respective group would later rendezvous for lunch in the shade provided by mother Harriet’s new creamsicle orange awning on the porch off the backside of the lake cottage. The awning was new because last August, Thaddeus put Herbert’s head through the center of it for a backhanded comment on his inability to provide Charlotte with the offspring she was desperately seeking. Herbert’s wife Katherine, hated the notion of children and poured every waking moment into her dog, Gretchen. As lunch gets served, bottles of wine are uncorked at a feverish pace considering the time of day and angle of the blistering August sun. Food is served but not consumed at an adequate and necessary rate to keep up with the wine intake. Previous year’s adventures not yet discussed at the lake, and plans for what’s next would be relayed with phony and shallow enthusiasm, as well as a heavy dose of one-ups-manship that was damn near a second language to the Washburn brothers. At least that’s the general notion of how things typically go.
As the sun rose on early July morning in 1847, the Washburn brothers and their brides all descended towards their family’s homestead estate in Mabel’s Crossing, about a four and half hour carriage ride from Providence proper. The Washburn’s have a deep and questionable pedigree in Rhode Island. As mentioned, Charlotte was married to Thaddeus, whose grandmother Mabel was born on this estate some seventy years prior. Mabel’s father, Augustus Harrison Washburn, was an influential politician and businessman who played an integral role in the establishment of Rhode Island as one of the original thirteen colonies. Too old to physically serve in the Continental Army, Harrison used his knowledge of shipping routes, importing and exporting brokers, and connections in the old country to find creative ways to disrupt almost every single one of King George’s shipping channels from Boston to New York and on down to Philadelphia. Harrison wanted to father his own army of boys, but the birth of his first child Harriet took the life of his beloved Mabel in the process. Augustus never fully moved on from that tragedy, and Harriet grew up feeling both responsible for his sad existence and emboldened to birth as many boys as she could. She too had a perpetual desire to find approval in her father’s eyes.
The tension of this year’s gathering was an odd one in that it was between Thaddeus and Charlotte, more abnormal than the usual agitation between a Washburn brother or two. Over the course of the morning’s carriage ride, Thaddeus became increasingly self-aware that he may never be able to father a child. This was supposed to be the gathering where they could finally tell the entire Washburn clan at lunch that another Washburn was on the way. The ultimate one upmanship over his brothers. Charlotte and Thaddeus’s attempts to start a family over the years
produced nothing but pressure and stress on a prideful, broad-shouldered, burly, and bearded man who lives outwardly in his own perceived manliness. As their carriage pulled up to the front of the Washburn Estate at Mabel’s Crossing, Charlotte muttered under her breath that she guessed she’d never need a house this grand for just the two of them. Thaddeus slammed the carriage door and sulked off to the lake. Despite the constant ribbing and aspersions casting down at the lake, the Washburn boys are loyal brothers happy to see one another at the old homestead where their youths were forged. Uniquely, each of them are searching for life’s true meaning and unrealistic happiness in their own ways.
Most of the Washburns met their wives while off in college, mainly in the northeast at prestigious institutions full of wealthy and influential families. But not Thaddeus. Charlotte was from Savannah, Georgia, and while respectful to a fault, had impressively quick wit with an even quicker mouth. Her and Thaddeus met on a happenstance encounter in Philadelphia where Charlotte was tagging along with her father, Cecil Buchannan, who had a series of business meetings with Harrison over shipping routes from Philadelphia down the Atlantic Coast all the way to the newly incorporated Jacksonville, Florida. There was money to be made and power to be grabbed but Thaddeus lost all focus when Charlotte appeared. She was unspeakably gorgeous in Thaddeus’s eyes, and when she spoke her southern drawl captivated every fiber of his being. They courted and married on the hope and devotion of a dream scenario living out a fruitful and satisfying life, filled with opportunity, laughter, and eventually, children.
As the third or fourth bottle of wine faded away in front of Thaddeus during lunch on the back porch of the lake cottage, Katherine was enthralled with whatever Gretchen was doing. In an attempt to make small talk, she haphazardly let slip to Thaddeus how his troubles getting Charlotte pregnant were just so unfortunate having overheard Charlotte having a conversation in the main house with Beauregard’s bride to be Josephine. Thaddeus saw red and a smirk on Herbert’s face. He and Herbert never really got along due to their age gap and lack of mutual interests and motivations, and things always came easy to Herbert much to Thaddeus’s chagrin.
In a single movement, Thaddeus leapt from his chair and got his hands on Herbert simultaneously spinning him around and launching him off the porch. Despite his rage, he remembered what happened last year and knew he could not be responsible for two new awnings in two years. Thaddeus being bigger and stronger got in some decent licks on Herbert, but they didn’t come easy. Thaddeus took a couple shots to the chin that pained his jaw more than he anticipated. As brothers are often to do, as soon as fists start flying, everyone piles on to get a piece of the action and try to ensure no one actually gets hurt. As Herbert and Thaddeus wrestle and trade blows, Gregory is the first one to jump on top, followed by Beauregard while the sickly Lawrence watches in amusement. In the fracas, both Thaddeus and Gregory’s shirts are ripped to rags. The commotion could be heard up at the main house where Harriet watched from a second floor balcony. She had long given up trying to change the Washburn boys and their propensity to get physical with one another over the silliest things. She had no idea that in this particular moment, she and her oldest boy shared such mutual, deep and intense emotions. Cottage staff and carriage drivers from the nearby stables tried unsuccessfully to break up the melee quickly and Charlotte had seen enough. As she went in to
grab Thaddeus by the shoulders and pry him off Herbert, he swung his arm back thinking it was another brother immediately knocking Charlotte across the face with a thunderous slap. Harriet audibly gasped. Everyone stopped. Time stopped. Sobriety returned. No one said a word. Thaddeus and Charlotte locked eyes as she held her cheek.
The staff got everyone refocused on lunch, or on Gretchen in Katherine’s case. As Thaddeus cools off with more wine, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to say. He’s trying to picture the four and half hour carriage ride back to Providence. The only thing he does know is that he can’t take his eyes off the way Herbert is consoling Charlotte and the hand on the small of her back.
Harriet will always be cursed with feeling like she failed as a mother and perhaps more hurtfully, failed as a Washburn. Her boys always had issues that disrupted or ruined the annual ‘Gathering of the Washburns’ but this was a first. An accident yes, but a totally avoidable and unnecessary one. Harriet lies to herself, like she always has, that in the grand scheme of things, this really isn’t that abnormal for a family of precocious, competitive, and rambunctious brothers. Something Mabel and Harrison would have most assuredly appreciated.