My thirty-plus short stories have appeared in such publications as Literary House Review, Barbaric Yawp, Timber Creek Review, and Imitation Fruit...read more Literary Journal. Two of these stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
My third novel, a romantic thriller called Nightmare in Norway, has recently been published by Milspeak Books. It is available as an eBook in the Smashwords Premium Catalog for downloading to Kindle, Nook and iPad electronic readers.
I HAD JUST HELPED THE GIRLS out of my car when I saw an old fellow heading in our direction. Ashley had buttoned her coat up all the way but Cameryn's jacket was wide open, collar and pockets flapping in the wind. The old fellow said something about a ticket but I was preoccupied with my younger daughter’s loose clothing. Now, practically in my face and holding a small paper stub in his hand, he wanted me to have it. “Take it,” he urged.
Not wanting to encourage a possible scalper, I shrugged and said I’d just buy one inside. He protested, said his wife was out of town and pleaded with me. He just wanted to give it away, save somebody some money. No cash given, no questions asked.
Why not? I’d save twenty bucks and could apply it to our dinner after the ballet. I thanked him, probably too much, and he wished me a Merry Christmas. Said I should consider the ticket as an early gift from his wife. He disappeared into the theatre while I shepherded the girls to the lobby and bought their tickets.
Programs in hand, we found three choice seats in the center, up about half way from the entry door’s level. A printed announcement on the screen informed us that, because of current atmospheric conditions, today’s high definition performance of The Nutcracker from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre could be interrupted. Our patience and understanding would be appreciated.
The lights eventually dimmed and we were transported to a Russian winter scene, thousands of Christmas lights blinking and snow falling, an optical illusion electronically painted on a curtain. The girls were spellbound by the loose limbs of the Nutcracker doll, the graceful dancing of Clara Stahlbaum, and Godfather Drosselmeyer’s exaggerated moves as a mysterious magician, all in black with gold stars on his cone-shaped hat and silver buckles on his black slippers. Full disclosure: I was thoroughly enchanted as well.
Everything was going smoothly until the screen froze momentarily as toy soldiers stepped smartly to “The Nutcracker March.” It happened again while the Mice King’s body was being dragged away by his loyal troops. But when a commotion erupted several rows back, I knew it wasn’t a problem with sun spots or solar flares.
A man yelled, “Give him some room,” and a woman cried out, “Somebody call for an ambulance.” People were standing in a cluster off to the right as others were grumbling, restless in their seats and wondering what was happening. The projectionist must have picked up on it and turned up the house lights slightly but allowed the show to continue on the screen. My girls kept watching the ballet but the spell was broken for me and many others in the audience. The cluster had widened and several people had stepped out into the aisle to allow more room.
After several more minutes, the program was halted and the lights turned up all the way. I heard a man several rows up tell his companion that a man probably had a heart attack and an ambulance was on the way. Ashley and Cameryn had their own intermission and went off to the bathroom together.
It wasn’t long before two burly paramedics in dark blue uniforms burst through the side doors with a gurney and medical paraphernalia. With astonishing efficiency, they treated the injured person who was still lying on the floor between two rows of seats. They lifted the body out of the seating area, into a far aisle, and down the steps to the lower level where the gurney was ready. The paramedics had bundled up the person in blankets and had fitted a plastic device fitted over his or her face for oxygen coming from a small tank. They wheeled the gurney-strapped victim through the side doors and into the lobby
Less than a minute later, my daughters came through those same doors and back to their seats. Ashley looked troubled, evidently because of the drama being played out in before her eyes, but Cameryn was ebullient. “Daddy,” she said, “they took him out to an ambulance. Did you see? It was him.”
“I saw the paramedics take somebody.”
“It was him, the man who gave us the ticket.”
“Are you sure? They had him all bundled up and I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.”
“I recognized his pony tail.”
That would be a distinguishing feature for sure. Long gray hair pulled back and tied with a leather strip, a hunk of turquoise attached. I recalled seeing it after he gave me the ticket and walked away.
The house lights dimmed and the program resumed, albeit with a noticeable gap in the story line which the girls didn’t seem to mind. My thoughts were still preoccupied with our ponytailed benefactor. I wondered how word would get to his wife, wherever she was, and how she’d feel about not being here in his moment of need. Not a very auspicious portent for the old guy’s Christmas.
It was too early for dinner when the show ended so we went to the mall and did some Christmas shopping. Armed with savings from their summer part-time jobs, the girls focused on gifts for Vera, their mother. Ashley bought a light blue turtleneck and Cameryn picked out a bottle of perfume. They weren’t interested in buying a present for Vera’s current love, a situation that gave me a small degree of satisfaction. Of course they could have bought things for me, saying that they were for the other guy, but I like to believe that my daughters are not that devious.
Next stop was the classiest Italian restaurant in town. We were pretty hungry so I asked our waiter to take our orders right away. Cameryn wanted pizza but it wasn’t on the menu so she settled for spaghetti and meatballs. Ashley decided on chicken and I ordered veal plus a bottle of Chianti. I waved at the waiter — leave all the wine glasses — and had him pour samples for the girls when he returned. Although the wine caused the girls to pucker up their lips, they were thrilled to be partaking of an adult beverage. Since they’d had many cell phone conversations while at the mall, I asked them to turn off their phones while we were having dinner and they reluctantly agreed.
Our dinner conversation centered on the ballet and such magical effects as the rapid transformation of the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree into one that was covered with snow. Cameryn raved about the dancers, the women's beautiful grace and the athletic ability of the men. She announced, “I’d like to take ballet lessons, Dad.”
“You need to talk with your mom about that. She’d be the one driving you there and picking you up.”
“Then I’ll wait until I catch her in a good mood.”
While we enjoyed tiramisu, I noticed Ashley had become silent with a serious look on her face. “Are you having a good time?” I asked.
“I keep thinking of the man who gave us the ticket. What will happen to him?”
“They probably took him to the hospital. They’ll take good care of him.”
“But he’s all alone. He said his wife’s out of town. She should be with him. He could be unconscious and not be able to tell them where she is.”
“Could be,” I offered, taking her hand, “but let’s hope it will work out OK.”
The girls made a big show of it when we returned to Vera’s apartment, tantalizing her with shopping bags but warning that she was in no circumstances allowed to see their contents until Christmas morning. Vera, always the eagle-eyed mother, seemed to pick up on Ashley’s reticence and Cameryn’s wine-fueled exuberance. She didn't comment but I’d hear about it later. I said my goodbyes to the girls and promised to pick them up at noon on New Years Eve. Vera, unusually pleasant, mentioned my timely thoughtfulness and wished me a blessed Christmas. What a relief, not being harangued about late child support payments and failure to keep promises I had made to our daughters.
Driving home in the darkness, I paid little attention to my surroundings and let my SUV find the way by autopilot. I became more alert when it started snowing and I found myself on the edge of St. Vincent’s parking lot. This is where the paramedics would have taken Mr. Ponytail. It was still early evening so, with nothing better to do, I pulled in and parked near the Emergency Room’s front door.
“I think they brought my friend here this afternoon,” I told the receptionist. “From The Screen while we were watching The Nutcracker.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“I have no idea.”
She stared at me for a moment with supreme annoyance all over her face. “You have to help me out here. We get plenty of people with all kinds of emergencies.”
“Um . . . it happened about two o’clock. People around him thought he had a heart attack and somebody called for an ambulance. Paramedics took him away about 2:30 and I’m guessing they brought him here.”
“What’s your interest in this?”
She had me for a moment. “Like I said, he’s a friend. Gave me a free ticket.”
The receptionist tapped her keyboard, stared at her computer screen and mumbled something about having a friend and not knowing his name. Finally she said, “Here you go. A man named Clay Holbrook, age 73, probable cardiac arrest. Admitted at six o’clock for further observation. Does that ring a bell?”
“Sounds like him. You have a room number?”
“2103A. Go out and turn left, then all the way back to the elevators once you go through the front door.”
I thanked her and went up to the second floor where I found Mr. Ponytail, aka Mr. Holbrook, sitting up in bed with his eyes closed. I entered the room quietly, not knowing whether he was unconscious or just sleeping. Several wires led from his body to an electronic box mounted on the wall above his head. A floor-to-ceiling blue curtain had been drawn, separating him from another patient’s bed at the rear of the room. I stood for several minutes, dithering about what to do next, and decided to sit in the chair next to his bed.
A burly guy with a Marine crew cut and wearing green scrubs came into the room and checked Holbrook’s monitor. He murmured something, apparently liking what he saw and turned to me. “You a relative?”
“A friend,” I replied. “I understand his wife is out of town.”
“Yeah, I know.” He pulled a slip of paper from a side pocket. “He gave me this number and I called but got no answer. I didn’t leave a message ‘cause I didn’t want her to hear the news on voice mail.”
“Let me have that,” I said, “and I’ll try to reach her.”
He said, “Thanks, pal,” and left.
I continued my vigil at Ponytail’s bedside, wondering why I had volunteered to be a messenger with such terrible news. I watched him breathing, interrupted occasionally by a whistling wheeze or sudden snort. His color was good, his facial expression serene, so I decided to grab some coffee in the cafeteria.
The coffee was hot and tasted good. I took a few careful sips, opened my cell phone and dialed the number on the note slip.
“Hello,” answered a woman after three rings.
“Yes, who is this?”
“My name’s Martin Quinn and I’m calling from St. Vincent’s. You don’t know me but I’m a friend of your husband.”
“What’s this about?”
I hesitated, searching for a diplomatic way to broach the news. “He’s all right. I want to say that right off the bat. Doing fine, getting the best of care.”
“What happened? Just tell me what’s going on.”
“He had a heart attack this afternoon. We were at The Screen watching The Nutcracker and the paramedics brought him in. He’s asleep now.”
The line went silent for a long time. “Why that old fool,” she exclaimed. “Did he put you up to this?”
“What?” I stupidly stared at the phone as if it was a live hand grenade. “No, I’m telling the truth. That’s what happened. I haven’t talked to him since he gave me that free ticket before the ballet started.”
“A free ticket. Must have been the one for me.”
“Yes, he mentioned that.”
“What else did he tell you?”
“Only that you were out of town.”
“That much is true. I’m in Tucson right now.” I could hear her pause and take a deep breath. “The fact is, Mr. Quinn, I left him. A temporary separation to give us some time and space to figure out what happened to our marriage.”
Her revelation made me temporarily speechless until I remembered something she’d said earlier. “You think he’s faking it?”
“Could be. One of his little tricks to get me back.”
“How the hell do you fake a heart attack?”
“All right, calm down. Look, I’ll catch a flight first thing tomorrow. When he wakes up, tell him I’ll come right to the hospital. Unless I hear otherwise.”
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that.”
“But only to talk, no promises. Make him understand that.”
“I’ll pass the word.”
After ending the call, I lingered in the cafeteria with my coffee. I had found Mrs. Holbrook and convinced her to come back and it gave me a good feeling. But that’s about as far as I wanted to go in a marriage mediator role.
When I returned to Ponytail’s room he was still sleeping. I again sat in the bedside chair, hoping that he wake up soon so I could give him the good news and be on my way. Several minutes later he opened his eyes and was startled to see me. “Who the hell are you?” he growled.
“Marty Quinn. You gave me a ticket earlier today, remember?”
He groaned and shifted his body. “Oh, yeah. I remember watching the ballet and then — whammo — something hitting my chest like a sledgehammer.”
“Somebody called an ambulance and the paramedics brought you in.”
“I’ll bet your girls liked the show.”
I gave him a review of the entire performance, spending more time on the latter portion that he’d missed. He listened attentively but when I casually mentioned I’d talked with his wife he became more alert.
“You talked to Diana? What did she say?”
“She’ll take a flight tomorrow morning and come right to the hospital. She’s in Tucson.”
He adjust the bed so he could sit up straighter. “That would be her sister there. Anything else?”
“She made a point about coming back. Only to talk, no promises. Sorry to be blunt, but she wanted that understood up front.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” He paused to rub his chin. “Your girls are pretty, Quinn. You married?”
“Then you know marriage is a bitch ugly deal sometimes. Rough as a cob.”
I wouldn’t have used those words but I didn’t want to argue with a bedridden man recovering from a heart attack. “It’s a tough proposition, takes some work on both sides to be a success.”
“You sound like some kind of goddam diplomat.” When I didn’t take the bait he continued, “Aw hell, you got a point. Guess I’ll have to put on my humble hat when she shows up. Maybe eat a big portion of crow for lunch.”
I got up from my chair and stood behind it. “Sounds good,” I said. “Think I’ll be on my way home now.”
“Hey, do me a big favor. Stop at my place and feed my dog.”
I didn’t want to but I couldn’t refuse him. “Sure, where do you live?”
He gave me directions to his casita, out highway 14 to the hippie community of Madrid. He added that he never locked up because there was no crime out there and people living in the compound always looked out for each other. “My dog’s name is Bendico,” he said, “a nice little mutt. He’s got tons of personality and won’t bite.”
I wasn’t thrilled about this and tried not to show it. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Holbrook. And thanks again for the Nutcracker ticket.”
“Hey, Quinn. I want you to remember something that my father used to tell me. ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ “
I shrugged my shoulders and left the hospital.
It took forever to find Ponytail’s casita, a term that gave his home more cachet than it deserved. I entered the front door cautiously and turned on the living room’s lights with the first wall switch I touched. After a quick look around, I noticed a blue-grey terrier at my feet, his chunky torso quivering and his tail wagging.
“Hi, Bendico,” I ventured, his tail now wagging briskly. “I’ll bet you’d like something to eat. Hold on for a minute while I look around.”
I stepped around him and moved to the kitchen as he waddled closely behind. The interior of Ponytail’s home was clean and well furnished according to my own pedestrian standards and the kitchen appliances were modern but not the kind you’d see in Architectural Digest.
I was rooting around the refrigerator when a high-pitched voice from the front door screamed, “Stop right there. Put your hands up and turn around slow.”
I did exactly as ordered and found myself looking straight into the muzzle of a double-barreled shotgun. “It’s OK, I’m a friend.”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“My name’s Marty Quinn. I’m a friend of Clay Holbrook.”
“I don’t understand.” Bendico was sitting between us, moving his head back and forth like a Wimbledon spectator.
“I could explain better if you pointed that gun in another direction.” She lowered it and I continued, “Long story short, Clay’s in St. Vincent’s and he asked me to come out here and feed Bendico.”
“The hospital? What happened? Is he hurt?”
“He’s OK. He had a heart attack this afternoon while we were at The Screen watching The Nutcracker.” I moved back into the living room.
“Poor Clay, it’s been a terrible year for him. And now, this.” She walked over to a couch and sat down, the shotgun resting across her knees.
I took those few moments to watch her move and I liked what I saw. About my age, she had black eyes and long curly hair that shone like polished ebony. She wore large gold earrings in the shape of sea shells, jangling gold bracelets on each wrist, and a voluminous dark red skirt with gold fleur-di-lies printed all over it. I took a chair opposite the couch and asked, “Are you a neighbor?”
“Yes, I look after Bendico and the house when he’s away. And since I live alone, he watches over my place.” A stricken look came over her face. “I should have been with him. He asked me to come.”
“He gave me the extra ticket,” I explained.
Silence followed until she said, “Excuse my rudeness. My name is Mirela.”
“An unusual name.”
“I was born in Bulgaria and it’s a Roma name. It means ‘to admire.’ “
“Interesting. Well, I admire the way you handled that shotgun.” I immediately regretted my attempt at humor but she blessed me with a wry grin. A nagging in my brain made its presence known; the nature of her relationship with Mr. Holbrook. It was time to show all my cards. “I talked with Mrs. Holbrook while I was at the hospital. She’s in Tucson, staying with her sister, but she’s catching a flight first thing tomorrow and coming right to the hospital.”
Mirela unleashed a brilliant smile. “That’s wonderful. Another chance to repair all the damage done to their relationship.”
I glanced at my watch. “It’s getting late and I have to work tomorrow. I better feed our friend here and get on the road.”
She stood and lifted the shotgun to her shoulder, looking like a person about to go duck hunting. “Look in the cupboard next to the fridge. That’s where he keeps Bendico’s food.”
“I got up and said, “Nice to meet you, Mirela.”
Her eyes sparkled as she offered her free hand which I took without hesitation. “Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“That would be great.” I watched her dance through the door and had a thought. Way better than great. I turned and looked down at Bendico, waiting patiently with his tail wagging. “After all this excitement, I’ll bet you’re starving.”
“Woof,” he spoke in a majestic bass voice.
I had one more thing to do when I got home. “Dad,” Ashley replied sleepily, “you know what time it is?”
“Sorry if I woke you, sweetie, but I needed to tell you something.”
“Then it must be good.”
“I dropped by St. Vincent’s and looked in on Mr. Ponytail. He’s doing fine.”
“That is good news.”
“There’s more. I talked to his wife — she’s in Tucson — and she’s flying back tomorrow morning.”
“Cool. They’ll have a nice Christmas together.”
“He asked me to feed his dog so I drove out to Madrid where he lives. That was an exciting experience.”
“What kind of dog? Hope he didn’t attack you.”
“No, he’s a nice dog called Bendico, very friendly.”
“Were the Christmas decorations nice this year?”
She was referring to Madrid’s annual event when the small town turns into a blaze of colored lights, some fastened to elaborate structures and blinking to simulate motion. “Too soon for that,” I responded. “Probably in a couple of days.”
I heard an audible yawn, my cue to let her go back to sleep. “Goodnight, sweetheart. Sorry for waking you.”
“I’m glad you called, Dad. I’ve been thinking about that poor old man and how he winked at me.”
“He winked at you?”
“When they were taking him out to the ambulance, I saw him wink at me. We were standing in the lobby and got a good look.”
“But they had a mask over his face.”
“It only covered his nose and mouth. Ask Cameryn, she’ll tell you.”
“OK, honey, I believe you. Now get some sleep.”
While brushing my teeth before crashing into bed, Clay’s last words about a free lunch popped into my head, causing me to laugh and spew foam tooth paste into the sink. What a bull-shitter!
I’ll mosey on down to Madrid later in the week and pay a visit to Clay and Diana Holbrook. Maybe take Bendico a Christmas treat. With any luck, I may have another meeting with Ms. Mirela. This time I’ll wear a flak jacket . . . just in case.
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