Mr. Belardi – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest, Round 2 (10/2017)

Here’s my second round entry into the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest last year. Again, the rules are 1,000 words, 48 hours to write an original work of fiction based on prompts for GENRE, SETTING and RANDOM OBJECT.

GENRE: Mystery (which I’d never written before)
SETTING: Physical rehabilitation facility
RANDOM OBJECT: Fried chicken (What is it with me and food?)

MR. BELARDI

 

“Mr. Belardi, wake up. It’s time for lunch.”

A yawn stretched across the patient’s scratchy patch of white stubble.

“Anna?”

“No, it’s Letty. Brought your favorite — fried chicken.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Letty, the day shift nurse. Same as this morning. Same as yesterday. Let’s get you upright so you can eat. Kevin’s gonna work on your core today.”

Letty freed his left hand from the Velcro restraint and repositioned the bulky sling protecting his right arm. As the bed cranked into its upright and locked position, she pushed the tray table across his lap.

“Where’s Anna?”

“Not here.” The forty-something black woman busied herself with the triptych of charts and monitors behind his head.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” He flicked the plastic spoon with his good thumb.

“Use it for the mashed potatoes. You can eat the drumstick with your hand.”

The purple starburst of bruise that surrounded his right eye contorted into an angry scowl. He stabbed the spoon into the sodden white blob.

“Can I at least have a goddam fork and knife?”

“Not after what you tried with Ben last night.” The nurse had a good thirty pounds on him — none of it fat. She wasn’t afraid of a scrawny, ex-mechanic with a broken wing. “You watch that language around me, sir.”

Outside the door of Room 418, a gold star identified Mr. Belardi as a fall risk.

A red stop sign warned visitors of his disposition.

As Letty emptied the urinal and checked the motion sensors tethered to his gown, the old man started to flop his legs beneath the white starchy sheets.

“My feet!”

“What’s wrong with your feet?”

“They’re burning — I have diabetes!” He jerked his leg against the restraint in ratcheting agitation. “My left foot! It’s on fire!”

“OK, OK. Calm down.”

She held her breath, raised the sheet and unfastened the Velcro strap on his right foot. Untended talons of yellow toenail jutted from the gray twigs of flesh.

“I said my left foot, goddammit!”

“There’s nothing wrong with your left foot, Mr. Belardi, and don’t use that language with me.”

“I’ll say whatever the hell I want, you bitch!” He spat out the words with flecks of potato and half-chewed peas. “When the police come back, I’ll tell them what you’ve done to me!”

Dr. McCormick and his bleach-blond hair jutted around the curtain.

“That’s enough, Mr. Belardi.” The title in front of Rob McCormick’s name commanded immediate respect from a patient that was old enough to be his grandfather. “Letty, I need to see you.”

The plastic sippy-cup smashed against the doorframe as she followed him out. Mr. Belardi’s left arm worked just fine.

“Detective Perry is coming back today,” Dr. McCormick said. “Hold off on his next round of Percocet.”

“He’s in a lot of pain.”

“Yeah, he’s a pain in our ass, but he has to be coherent for the interview.”

A clatter of plastic and metal crashed across the white laminate tiles as the sensors shrieked in panic. A wet thud of flesh smacked the floor. Inside, Mr. Belardi belly-crawled toward them, his broken shoulder splayed out to the side. His hospital gown gaped like a noose around his head.

“My foot! My foot!”

The left stump hung limp from the tangle of sheets cascading over the bedrails. The flap of skin, smooth and brown, folded into a tidy crease.

“Anna! Anna! They took my leg! They cut it off!”

Arms beneath his waist, orderly hands pulled the gown back across his naked loins. He twisted and writhed, kicking the stump against the men that held him fast.

“Three, two, one, lift!”

His sobs dwindled down the hollow point of Letty’s needle.

*******************************************************************************

The sergeant stood at parade rest outside the door with the gold star and red stop sign.

“There’s nothing more we can do for your father,” Dr. McCormick said. “We’re a rehab institute, not a memory care facility.”

“It’s gotta be the anesthesia — that’s why he’s confused, sir. The surgeon said it’d take a while for him to get right.”

Sergeant Drew Belardi followed in his father’s fleet footsteps, fighting in Golden Gloves before enlisting in the Army. In another twenty years, he’d have the same wispy smattering of hair across the crown of his head. In another forty, he might find himself lost in this same dark tunnel.

“It’s more than anesthesia,” Dr. McCormick continued. “He’s refusing therapy. He’s been abusive to the staff — tried to attack one with a fork. We didn’t report that when the police came.”

Sergeant Belardi dug his fists into his green Dickeys, his posture faltering.

“I hope you told them what happened,” Sergeant Belardi said. “That’s why I filed a report.”

“He lost his balance and fell into a concrete planter box in front of a dozen witnesses. It wasn’t elder abuse… Spatial issues are a symptom of Alzheimer’s.”

The men exhaled together under the weight of their generation’s new burden.

“I’m sorry I’m having a hard time believing you, sir. He’s a fighter… worked hard on his rehab when they took his foot two years ago. It’s gotta be the anesthesia.”

In four years as a physician, Dr. McCormick had seen this play out too many times: Patients rallied for favored sons and favorite nurses. Between deployments, Sergeant Belardi would get the good stuff, while Anna would suffer the daily decline.

He played his final card.

“Look, we can do in-home physical therapy for the shoulder. It makes a big difference for patients to be in a familiar environment with people they love. It’ll probably do him a world of good to be back at Glen Acres with Anna.”

“Anna?”

“Yeah, he’s been asking for her every day.”

“My Mom’s been dead for two years. We lost her in the car accident that took Dad’s foot.”

Mr. Belardi returned to Glen Acres that evening with orders for an Alzheimer’s evaluation.

Four Chefs – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest, Round 1 (7/2017)

Backstory: On the recommendation of my friend Laura, I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest. Basically, you have 48 hours to write 1,000 words using a randomly assigned GENRE, SETTING and RANDOM OBJECT. You are judged on how well you adhere to those rules. So here’s my first story from last year — YOU be the judge:

FOUR CHEFS
GENRE: Romance (And I never in a million years would’ve ever considered writing a romance)
SETTING: Waiting Room
RANDOM OBJECT: Banana Split

FOUR CHEFS

Four chefs, three courses, only one chance to win: A game show for chefs with a $10,000 ticket out of the kitchen for Amanda Wolfe.

“It’s not like being in a kitchen at all.”

With its chrome wire shelves and aluminum platter cart, the waiting room played the part, but there were four of them here, sitting on metal stools, trying to make small talk in front of three cameras.

No one sat down in the kitchen during service. They rarely even stopped to pee.

“I know, right? There’s so much space. Having my own table is like… damn.” Nat owned a Creole bistro in Houston. He needed the money to cover a storm-damaged roof.

A butcher from a Phoenix steakhouse, Amanda was thrilled to get the table closest to the pantry. It should’ve given her an advantage during the basket-opening melee, but that didn’t stop ‘Best New Chef’ Jean-Claude from checking her into the anti-griddle so he could grab the meat grinder.

Fat lot of good it did him: Not adding bacon to the venison dried out his appetizer. His five-star attempt at sabotage made him the first to walk the long Hall of Shame.

In the entree round, poor Braedyn nearly vomited when his Whole Chicken in a Can evacuated its container with a flatulent splat. He cooked exclusively with organic, in-season ingredients at his upscale, upstate New York inn. The man-bunned man-child had never worked a four-hundred-cover Friday in his life.

“I’m so hungry right now, I’d eat the whole can.”

“Said the woman who makes hot dogs for a living.”

Nat shot a side-eye at him, but Amanda didn’t mind. She spent every shift dodging screaming-hot pots, sailor-mouthed insults and grabby-handed line cooks. This twerp wouldn’t be around for dessert, not after forgetting the greens on one plate.

Nat leaned on his elbows, eager to talk shop. His skin was the color of caramels. Working side-by-side with Amanda, they’d spun a graceful pas de deux across the rubber safety mats. Suck in, swivel around, shimmy to the stove. Hyperaware of their bodies in motion, they cut a cool contrast to Braedyn’s panicked tantrums over canned chicken, sardines, dandelion greens, and a banana split.

“Dude, your curry… using the ice cream to thicken it? Genius.”

“My grammaw’s recipe. I was a little worried about the spice level.”

He dragged a calloused hand across his bald head. His lion’s mane of dark lashes closed languidly over dark brown eyes.

“They loved yours.”

“I don’t know if a chicken salad sandwich is enough to call an entree.”

“Don’t make excuses for your food. The fried fish bones blew their minds.”

“It’s just Japanese bar food. I used to have it all the time in Kyoto,” said the petulant Millennial, before he, too, was dismissed.

Dessert Round: If it’d been Jean-Claude or Braedyn, Amanda would have embraced the trash talk, but she felt foolish, looking up at Nat’s wide smile.

The network didn’t do hair and makeup for the chefs. She rarely managed a swipe of mascara at home, but she cursed herself now for forgetting her lipstick, a subtle pink that brought a little color to her delicate cheekbones.

“This Sausage Party ends today.” She cringed hearing herself say it. Nat burst into giggles. Another three takes finally quieted their laughter.

“I’m taking dessert back to the desert!”

“Looking forward to the fight.”

Araucana eggs, feta cheese, shoo-fly pie, and kiwi fruit. With the dance floor rearranged, their careful quickstep clattered into one another, swooping, stopping, stooping, dipping. The judges called the play-by-play through the swirls of her bubbling caramel, the churn of her feta ice cream and the brown-sugar warmth of his oven-full of cupcakes.

Banished to their kitchen-themed prison, they slouched, weary and worn, onto their stools. Twelve hours’ worth of culinary fire drills had begun to take its toll.

“So what took you to Phoenix?”

“Followed a boy.”

“Oh.” Nat glanced at her hands, tattooed with old burns and past cuts.

“And then I realized I liked the desert more than him.” She twirled a dark, shoulder-length curl around her index finger. “And you? Anyone special waiting at home?”

“Two of them.” Her heart now wallowed in her empty belly.

“Boy or girl?”

“Pit bulls. If I win, I’m buying a new couch.”

“I thought you said you needed to fix your roof.”

“I do, but the dogs got bored and tried to tunnel out. I’d like to have a place for people to sit.”

“You say that like you have friends over all the time.”

Amanda’s last day off had been thirteen days ago: She never bothered to make her bed anymore. She didn’t remember the last time she’d made a friend who didn’t work in a kitchen.

“So what are you gonna do with the money?”

“Food truck. Take the Sausage Party on the road.”

That sly grin danced across his face.

“Maybe you can come to Houston.”

“Call me when you get a couch.”

The production assistant called them back to the kitchen. The cloche revealed his crumbling cupcakes.

Her hands to her mouth, her heart on the floor.

“I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for. You killed it.” He folded her in his strong arms, their sweaty, exhausted bodies leaning into each other.

He disappeared down the hall, leaving her to a lonely hour of post-production paperwork and congratulatory interviews. Back home, at eight o’clock, she’d still have three hours before she could escape the greasy smog of fryers and steam tables and emerge beneath the faint stars and blue-black sky.

She had no plans for the night in the city that never sleeps. The streets buzzed with headlights and taxicabs. The evening chill shivered through her damp T-shirt.

“Wanna go celebrate?” Nat emerged from the shadows in his street clothes, enveloping her in his oversized jacket.

“God, yes. I could use a drink.”

“Let’s go. You’re buying.”

We Watched All the Marvel Universe Movies in Chronological Order: What I Learned

Eighteen movies and about forty hours of explosions: That’s what the Marvel Universe was — up until Avengers 3: Infinity War turned it all on its head. There are NO spoilers ahead for Avengers 3… and if you haven’t seen the other 18 movies, well, you might as well quit reading now.

To get ready for the big adventure, Pat and I decided to watch all of the Avengers movies in chronological order — not in order of release — in the weeks leading up to Avengers 3. Here’s what we (I) learned:

  1. That’s a lot of time to spend on the couch.
  2. Winslow does not like explosions.
  3. Chris Hemsworth is a manly specimen of awesomeness; even Pat acknowledged that… repeatedly. **ANGEL PIRATE!**
  4. The second outing of every character’s series appears to be the weakest.
  5. It goes without saying, but seriously people: WHY DOES ANYONE LEAVE THE THEATER AFTER THE CREDITS START TO ROLL?

Here’s the order to watch – and the events in Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol 2. apparently happen pretty close together, ergo back-to-back, which is a lot of fun. Added bonus: My quick thoughts on whether you should invest in couch time and Thor ogling:

  1. Captain America: The First Avenger – This is where it all starts. Pay close attention to the location and the villain. Oh, and beefed up Captain, shirtless! Special appearance by the Space Stone / Tesseract. MUST WATCH.
  2. Iron Man – Without Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, none of these movies happen. Pay attention to his Dad. MUST WATCH.
  3. The Incredible Hulk – We skipped this one. Now that Mark Ruffalo is the Hulk, it wasn’t worth revisiting Edward Norton Jr. SKIP IT.
  4. Iron Man 2 – Not my favorite Iron Man, but it gives us a little more on Tony’s relationship to Howard Stark. OPTIONAL
  5. Thor – Hello, Chris Hemsworth, oh, and welcome to the party, Hawkeye! Oh, and please take off your shirt again, Thor. MUST WATCH.
  6. The Avengers – Fun to see the band getting together. Hulk, smash! And please take off your shirt again, Thor. Hello Mind Stone / Scepter. Greatest post-credits ever: Schwarma! MUST WATCH.
  7. Iron Man 3 – Good character development for Tony Stark, and really fun callbacks to the 1990s. OPTIONAL.
  8. Thor: The Dark World – The best part of this movie is Chris Evans playing Loki playing Captain America… and shirtless Chris Hemsworth. Natalie Portman doesn’t have anything to do. The only reason you’d watch this is for the Reality Stone / Aether. SKIP IT.
  9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier aka Avengers 1.5 – Again, the second outing is always weak for these characters. They could’ve done so much with Steve Rogers integrating into the modern era, but it plays more like Avengers-lite. Would’ve loved to have seen more on his and Bucky’s relationship. OPTIONAL. (If you’re trying not to sacrifice an entire week of your life on the couch, you can skip it — but my friend Paul says it’s a MUST WATCH)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy – Chris Pratt, shirtless! Truly, a breath of fresh air from the brooding, overwrought Dark World and Winter Soldier. Still the greatest soundtrack in movie history and so damn funny… Hello, Power Stone / Orb. MUST WATCH.
  11. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Still fun, but needs a lot of editing. Scenes go on a little too long and the Kurt Russell / Ego infodump-diorama is tiresome, but it’s still funny. OPTIONAL.
  12. The Avengers: Age of Ultron – This really is a mess — the second outing is always a drag — gets confusing at times and again, could use a good edit, but, Thor shirtless! Basically, Vision is invented, and this is important for Avengers 3. Plus, Thanos throws on the gauntlet in the post-credits sequence. MUST WATCH. (sorry)
  13. Ant-Man – Paul Rudd, shirtless… DAAAAMMMMNNN, son. Has he been working out with Thor? This is fun and funny with terrific special effects. OPTIONAL.
  14. Captain America: Civil War, aka Avengers 2.5 – Again, this really is more of an Avengers movie right up until the end when Captain America and Iron Man duke it out. Still, it deals with interesting themes, and some neat callbacks in the history of the universe, but no shirtless Thor. Welcome to the party, Black Panther! It does set us up for Avengers 3. MUST WATCH.
  15. Doctor Strange – Kind of like Iron Man but with magic! And I could watch Benedict Cumberbatch all day. Introduces the Time Stone / Eye of Something-Or-Ruther. Important for Avengers 3. MUST WATCH.
  16. Spider-Man: Homecoming – I felt a little weird watching shirtless Tom Holland, but this was adorable and a lovely reminder that, at heart, Peter Parker is a kid. Plus, he and Robert Downey Jr are terrific together. OPTIONAL
  17. Thor: Ragnarok – Thor got his groove back (and his shirt is off!). This is so much fun, especially as it becomes a bro-mance between Hulk and Thor. Sets up well for Avengers 3. MUST WATCH.
  18. Black Panther – There’s so much good here. Feminism. Anti-colonialism. Cool tech. This is one of the best in the MCU, plus lots of shirtless Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. MUST WATCH.

So this is your list. Suffice it to say, we really enjoyed watching Avengers 3 and will likely see it again. That 2 hours, 40 minutes flew past, though sadly, no shirtless Thor. But, dear Lord, Captain America’s beard!

Hierarchy of Hate 2018 – The Vindication

Now, with 100% less Brent Musberger.

If it’s New Year’s Day, you must be ready for some college football… to be over.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t have a dog in this four-way fight, and you have other things to do with your day, but if you’ve already taken down the Christmas tree or Hanukkah lights, and it’s below below-freezing in your neighborhood, and there are no wholesome alternatives on your horizon (like filing your nails or rearranging your garage cabinets or sleeping) and you’d like a non-political alternative for your spleen-venting, well, turn on the TV kids and let’s get ready for a hate-rumble!
Yes, it’s the Hierarchy of Hate 2018 – The Vindication. No, I didn’t complete it in time for the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, but I’ve got you covered for the Final Four in this delicious sham of a playoff… Because sometimes it’s not about cheering for a team, it’s about rooting against them.
And don’t worry, Baylor, after this year, your penance is almost up and you’ll matriculate from Hate Us Emeritus into the wasteland that is the Big 12 or 13 power-bottoms for the Oklahillbillies. Meanwhile, keep the seat warm for those assholes at Liberty University who seem to believe that the Christian thing to do is to hire Baylor’s disgraced, rape-cover-upping, victim-blaming, athletic director to overhaul their football program. Praise Jesus: We can only hope that the Liberty Flames find themselves facing the Great Satan on a future Bama homecoming schedule. I know who I’ll be cheering for!

The Hierarchy of Heartbreak – Or Weekends Without College Football

We left the house in the third quarter, right after the Aggies took a 44-10 lead over UCLA.

It was our 17th wedding anniversary. We had reservations — and a gift card! — for Flemings. We arrived early and waited in the bar while our table was being prepared: 44-17. In the blink of an eye to start the fourth quarter, it was 44-24.

“Uh-oh.”

“They probably have the second team in by now. Nothing to worry about,” Pat said cheerfully, as the hostesss escorted us to our table.

They put little paper hearts on the table to honor our special day. Since it was a Sunday, I hadn’t checked the schedule to see whether football would conflict with our dining experience, but it was too late to reschedule. In literary circles, this is called foreshadowing.

To commemorate Baylor’s loss on Saturday, Pat ordered a bottle of Liberty School cabernet: Such delicious irony with bright notes of blackberry and undertones of toasted oak, without the rich self-righteousness and bitter hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell’s core curriculum.

Then my Apple Watch skipped a beat with a text from my old friend Jim (an LSU Tiger):

WTH happened? In boredom, I turned off the game an hour ago!!!

And we checked the score: 44-38 with less than 2 minutes left in the game.

“They can’t. There’s no way,” Pat said, with the confidence of an LSU Tiger who no longer fears the Mad Genius of Les Miles late-game decision-making.

WTH happened? We got out-coached. The glaring lack of discipline that has been the hallmark of the Sumlin era made its debut in September rather than waiting to crush us in November.

It was the second-biggest comeback in NCAA history. The Bruins scored five — 5!?! — touchdowns in a little over a quarter. Yes, our backup kicker missed a field goal that could have put it away. Yes, our starting quarterback was out with a foot injury. Yes, safety Donovan Wilson also injured his foot… but he wasn’t the only defensive player on the field. We missed FIVE chances to stop UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen’s ascendancy to the Downtown Athletic Club’s hallowed stage in December. We just had to stop him one time.

ONE TIME!

We ran roughshod over them throughout the first half — and in the second half, we decided to work on our passing game with an untested freshman? Our O-line looked like world beaters in the first half… and then they looked like Spaghetti-Os. Uh-oh. Roughly the same personnel were on the field, but the exact same coaches were on the sidelines: None of the running backs broke their ankles, and we knew we had issues at linebacker.

As we finished the bottle of Liberty School, my weekends suddenly unfurled like a flag of furious joy and well-deserved relief: Now that college football is no longer a part of my core being, I’ve got a lot of spare time on my hands… and a better outlook on life.

Learn to butcher a hog? Why not! It’s not like I’m gonna waste three hours watching us get  a participation ribbon against Nicholls State. Re-do our master bathroom? Hell yeah, especially since I don’t have to scour 600 channels in search of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette tilt: I’ll just zip on over to HGTV and binge watch The Property Brothers. Enter that mountain bike race? Of course! It’s better than destroying my manicure during another Arkansas debacle.

I can motherfucking macrame new curtains for the whole house if I want, because I’ve got all kinds of time, bitches. My Saturdays are now open.

I knew this day was coming: When we got our NFL Sunday Ticket renewal in July, we decided to cancel it after 20 years of loyal viewership. We didn’t watch it enough to justify the price tag, and autumn is prime mountain biking, hiking and general outdoor fun time in Arizona.

DirecTV played Let’s Make a Deal and by the end of Pat’s negotiations, they were paying us $5 a month to keep Sunday Ticket.

There’s a lot of good science out there investigating sports and traumatic brain injury (and the contents of this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the linguistic tenor or editorial bent of my nonprofit employer or its parent). There’s also a lot of great reporting on the football-overlords’ roles in obfuscating that science. There are professional athletes asking whether this game is worth the risk — and more importantly, there are moms asking the same questions.

There are also moms who think that their precious angels (and future Tiki-torchbearers) are deserving of full-ride scholarships just by virtue of having been enrolled in ridiculously expensive sports camps since the age of 5… which is another good reason that I’m no longer a sportswriter: Sport is rife with economic inequity, and it’s bottled at every level with a hypocrisy-by-volume ratio to rival Liberty University’s hiring of Baylor’s former rape-ignoring athletic director.

Don’t hate the players, hate the game: At least that’s what the young people say, and that’s a fair assessment of how I feel. I love Texas A&M and cherish my time there. I just don’t know that I care that much anymore about football, now that we have become the Vanderbilt of the SEC West… or worse, the Texas of the SEC (overrated, underperforming — and by the way, who were the Darrell Royal apologists that thought it was a good idea to give the Longhorns a preseason ranking?).

Sure, I love the trash-talking that floods my feeds every Saturday, and I enjoy the virtual pep rallies that ensue among my old friends. But I’d rather reunite with them around a cold beer at Duddley’s Draw than at a football game that could take three years off my life.

I’ll still have the Hierarchy to fall back on: It’s worth some good laughs and keeps my design skills up to speed, especially when I’m waiting on my pot of gumbo to finish. But you don’t have to reschedule your Saturday for the New Mexico tilt in order to play the Hierarchy of Hate: It’s like hitting a 16 when the house is showing a 10. Take your hit — you’ll win or lose — and you don’t have to agonize about the outcome.