All posts by stacy

Instagold – NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, 2018 (Feb 2018)

After I washed out in the semifinals of the Flash Fiction contest, I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. The format was just a shade different: Each round had different story lengths and deadlines, but the same types of wacky prompts. I finished in fourth place in my heat for this round to advance to the second round.

Here was my first entry:
2,500 words / 8 days to write (a luxury – both in words and time)
Character: Executive Chef
Subject: Cryptocurrency
Genre: Comedy (woo-hoo!)

Instagold

Synopsis: The Queen of Social Media Food CryticsTM pays a visit to the renowned Satullo restaurant, and #FlambeFlimFlam erupts, cratering the Instagold markets.

 

“She’s here.”

Mara’s icy warning crackled through the hiss and sizzle of the busy kitchen, three hours into its Friday night swing. Postures straightened at every station. Down the line from the fryer to the fish counter, heads turned to glimpse the most powerful food CryticTM in social media.

Madelaine Green, a.k.a. @ElleMange, had reserved a table for two.

With 20,457,320 verified followers and a virtual net-worth of one million-Instagold ($4.8 million-USD), @ElleMange founded the Ruth Reichl Institute of Digital Cryticism, in honor of her culinary muse.

When @ElleMange liked, hearted or sad-faced, foodies swooned.

“You know what to do — let’s get back to work.” Chef Nico stalked the line, a jocular drill sergeant cajoling his brigade de cuisine. “Act like you’ve been there before.”

And they had: Satullo, the tiny jewel box in a palm-lined corner of Old Town Scottsdale, boasted a Michelin star. The James Beard Foundation named Chef Nico Best Chef Southwest in 2019 and 2020.

“Wait a sec, Chef… We’ve got a Goldigger. Slipped in behind her.”

Nico screwed in his EarPod to blunt the hubbub that greeted the new arrivals: “A Goldigger? We met our monthly quota last week… You want Rafi to take care of him?”

“Looks like they’re together.”

Nico wiped his hands on his full-length black apron and made his way to the performance end of the kitchen. The stainless counter with its eight-burner stove commanded the panorama of the dining room. Cash-paying customers got a seat at the bar to watch sparks fly at one end, while Crytics gathered around cozy, candlelit tables at the other.

“Maybe she’s training him? Like a Baby Ruth?”

Mara nodded, acknowledging his fears without tipping her guests to the voice-box hidden among the pearls at her razor-sharp collarbones. She pulled the seat of honor facing the kitchen for the birdlike @ElleMange, austerely beautiful in her trademark white silk T-shirt and wide-legged black trousers. Then the Goldigger pulled out a different chair, flapping at @ElleMange with the unbuttoned cuffs of his flannel shirt.

At least it had a collar.

He brushed his furry lips past the Crytic’s delicate cheekbones as she alighted beside him.

“Well, I’ll be.” Nico ran a calloused hand through his thatch of black hair. Thirty years in the business hadn’t thinned or grayed the cowlicked mess on his head, but this night might.

The Chef logged into the POS system: The Instagold 7000 differed from other point-of-sale systems because it managed cryptocurrency transactions, reporting real-time balances from customers’ virtual accounts. A Gold-Certified Crytic like Madelaine Green paid with higher-valued Instagold, while Goldiggers like her guest Humphrey Blbec worked their way up to Crytic-status by visiting the right restaurants; posting the right combination of photos, likes and status updates; and racking up Instagold like retirees at a slot tournament.

With followers in the low thousands and anemic engagement scores, Blbec was a true P-O-S in the POS: The only things going for him were a Brooklyn ZIP code and a beard that looked like it’d been appliquéd to his face by a third-grader with a popsicle stick. Over the past month, Humphrey had gobbled up seventeen of the 4:30 PM dinner reservations allotted for his kind at Gold-Certified establishments in New York, where he checked off high-value feats of gustatory adventure — sweetbreads, blowfish, haggis, durian.

“He’s a hustler — I’ll give him that.” The grudging admiration churned up from Nico’s Jersey roots: He started out washing dishes at a bistro in Newark, working his way up the line in the City before heading West to seek his fortune.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

The term ‘miss’ clawed at Mara’s back like a mangy cat. @ElleMange hadn’t even situated her #760.4-IG ($3,650-USD) Louis Vuitton Pernelle on its purse-pedestal before her companion managed to issue a complaint.

Mara inhaled her composure, stuffing the irritation back between her shoulder blades.

“How may I help you, Mr. Blbec?”

“It’s Bluh-BECK — you pronounced it bill-BETZ.”

“Please forgive me, Mr. Bluh-BECK. That’s Czech, isn’t it?” Of the four languages she spoke fluently, Mara learned Czech in her Babi Krajicek’s arms. “How may I be of assistance, Mr. Bluh-BECK?”

“This lighting is terrible. How do you expect anyone to capture your food in here?”

“Lighting for Crytics’ tables was installed by the chief of photography for Bon APPetit magazine. It was the first investment Chef made with his Instagold earnings.”

“What a thoughtful touch,” @ElleMange cooed. “I thought the ambiance seemed familiar.”

“The system identifies our guests’ devices and adjusts accordingly. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Bluh-BECK. It will be corrected immediately.”

“Whatever. Look, I don’t like being on display here,” Humphrey sniffed. “Knowing ElleMange’s status, I’m sure you understand.”

With just twenty-four seats inside and January winds gusting outdoors, Mara had no other Crytics’ tables available.

The only option was the lonely Goldigger two-top on the way to the restrooms. Having heard the conversation through Mara’s EarPod, staff was already setting it up.

“Right this way, Mr. Bluh-BECK.”

First bite: Dainty quail eggs spilled their golden yolks onto tender green asparagus, sprinkled with the yummy crunch of Chef’s special “bacon candy.” A Gold-Certified, crisp, Italian white cut through the fatty decadence.

Back in a corner more to his liking, Humphrey harrumphed through his first volley of photos as @ElleMange gamely provided fill-light from her phone. With their jury-rigged gaffing, gripping and griping, the foodies’ epic photo shoots once added a half-hour to every dinner, killing Satullo’s ability to turn tables. The Bon APPetit lighting had been a godsend.

Until now.

The pasta course was shared because @ElleMange did not do leftovers. She insisted on tasting each bite as Chef had prepared it: Luscious chanterelles and homemade sausage lay on potato-pillows of gnocchi beneath a satiny sheet of reduced marsala. A Gold-Certified Oregon Pinot Noir awakened the flavors from their buttery slumber.

The kitchen swelled as a symphony beneath Chef Nico’s baton: The tympanic huff of bluefin thumped on the board, the clean swipe of a knife through its ruby flesh, the staccato percussion of minced garlic, diced onion, chopped celery, sliced fennel. Tickets spat from the Instagold 7000 like cards shuffled through the fingers of a Vegas dealer, as the front of house kept wine swirling, cocktails shaking and bellies aching for the next gastronomic movement.

Chef Nico took the floor for his star turn: An off-menu temptation, cooked especially for the Crytic.

“An Arizona farmer, whose family has worked this land for a century, brought us some blood oranges — hand-picked this morning, not ten miles from here — so I have a locally sourced pork shoulder with blood orange…”

“Is it Gold-Certified?” Humphrey asked.

“Uh, no.” The chef crossed burly arms over his fireplug chest. “But I’ve worked with this family for years, and I try to support local farms. I spend my gold and order Gold-Certified where I can — the bluefin and duck, for example — but we have to ship that in from out of state, and…”

“The lady will have the bluefin, and I’ll take the duck. Thanks.”

Chef Nico turned on the wooden heel of his clog and stormed back to the kitchen. Rafi the bartender handed him a short glass of camomile grappa.

“I’m good, thanks,” Chef growled.

“We’ll have it after service, then,” the handsome Puerto Rican said as he polished a silver shaker. “I think we’re all gonna need it.”

The only Gold-Certified dessert was Cherries Jubilee. The cherries hopped a FedEX cargo plane that morning from Mount Rainier, and the brandy came from a small-batch distiller, Latch & Brand. They aged their cherry-based liqueur in cherry-wood barrels deep in the heart of Portland. For Valentine’s Day, Nico was planning to recreate the original recipe Escoffier used to honor Queen Victoria’s Jubilee: Tonight it would be a dessert fit for the Queen of Social Media.

Made with cream from Gold-Certified, grass-fed cows tended by hair-shirted monks in Madison, Wisconsin, Plein VanillaTM was handcrafted with hand-scraped vanilla planiformia beans, hand-pollinated and hand-harvested from wild orchids by Gold-Certified, indigenous Guatemalan peoples. At #7.2-IG ($35-USD) per gallon, Plein VanillaTM was the most expensive ice cream in the world.

Some said @ElleMange used it as moisturizer.

“I don’t get why a lady like that is with a douche like him,” Chef Nico grumbled as the syrupy cherries gurgled on the burner.

“Might be good in bed,” Mara said, as she fetched the long-stemmed, Gold-Certified aspen-wood matches from Aspen, Colorado. “Maybe he’s hung like a donkey.”

“Thanks for putting that image in my head.”

@ElleMange beamed as Chef Nico presented the burbling cherries, glistening in their stainless pan. The server placed gilded saucers of Plein VanillaTM deliciousness before each guest. Mara struck the match with the precision of color guard warrant officer and burned at attention beside Chef Nico, waiting for his command.

Humphrey climbed onto his chair — a crane of awkward arms and legs, angling to get the right shot.

“Could you please sit down, sir?”

“Don’t mind me, Chef. I just need one shot.”

“And I will re-enact this scene as many times as you need to get that shot, so long as you get down from the table.”

“The ice cream is melting,” @ElleMange stage-whispered. “Humphrey, please.”

One foot firmly planted on the cane-bottomed seat, the other astride the table, Humphrey lunged forward with a pirate’s swagger.

“WE EAT… WITH OUR EYES… FIRST!” He spat her trademarked hashtag back at the Crytic. “I’m going to get this shot, ElleMange. Now, light it up, Chef!”

“Forgive me, Ms. Green.”

Chef Nico bowed and abandoned the pan on the table, then retreated to the kitchen amid a volley of gasps. Humphrey’s foot punched through the chair. Her mouth agape, the flame smoldering toward her fingers, Mara staggered back as the Goldigger cartwheeled forward. His phone, in free-fall, knocked the match from her hand.

FOOMP!

Blue flashover! Airborne cherries! Hair-product inferno!

Mara scooped up the golden saucer and smashed it into the crispy remnants of Humphrey’s blackened, Chia-Pet mustache.

@ElleMange swayed in a daze: Macerated cherries made Pollocks of Humphrey’s bollocks. Dingleberries of charred beard and melted vanilla smeared his face. @ElleMange looked down at her silk shirt, now a culinary crime-scene, sprayed red with the sweet blood of the stone-fruit fusillade.

Rafi caught the Crytic as her legs gave way. Mara brought water and a kitchen-staff T-shirt. Chef Nico showed Humphrey Blbec the door.

“The market won’t stand for this, Chef Nico! You’ll pay!”

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

Satullo comped the meal (#85.4-IG / $410-USD), and the T-shirt (#2.1-IG / $10-USD), and the replacement for @ElleMange’s blouse (#28.8-IG / $138-USD). With that, Chef Nico shut off the Instagold 7000. Though @ElleMange had posted no photographic record of the meal herself, #FlambeFlimFlam went viral. More than 30,790,000 views rolled in within a week… and so did the Goldiggers.

“You’re money’s no good here,” Rafi warned, as a clot of aggrieved Instagold acolytes pulled out their phones. “Cash only.”

“We have a right to be here,” the Goldiggers protested. They hunkered on their barstools and began to hum We Shall Overcome.

“This ain’t Woolworth’s, cabrón. Pay up or get out.”

The Goldiggers’ Denial of Service attack worked: Cash customers had seen enough on YouTube and didn’t want hirsute hipsters creating another unhappy meal.

Valentine’s Day was two weeks away with no reservations on the books.

His Instagold reserves dwindling, Nico hoped he could wait out the Goldiggers, but his dishwasher had child support payments, and the sous chef needed dental work, and even if the Goldiggers left, would the cash-paying customers return?

“Maybe I should start taking gold again? Extend the olive branch to Blbec and give him a Crytic chit?” Nico wondered aloud as he wandered through an empty Wednesday night. As a James Beard winner, Nico could confer Crytic status on any Goldigger with a click of a button on the Instagold 7000.

“I may have a solution, Chef.” Mara replied. “Don’t judge.”

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

“They’re here.”

Mara’s stern warning struck the kitchen like a thunderbolt. Heads dominoed down into their stations.

“Guys, I don’t know what to do here, so let’s just get to work,” Chef Nico said as he stalked the line, taking phones from every cook and kitchen-hand. “Act like we’ve been there before.”

The Scottsdale Leather and Bondage Society (SLABS) booked two entire Valentine’s Day seatings for a pair of three-hour, six-course marathons. Two tuxedoed linebackers with open-carry holsters posted up beside the CLOSED sign outside.

In a black latex catsuit and thigh-high boots, Mara directed guests to their seats. There would be no “Excuse me, Miss” tonight, only “May I beg your mercy, Mistress Mara.”

“They’re not gonna be naked, are they?” Nico asked. “Last thing I need is a health-code violation.”

“No nudity… but maybe blindfolds,” she said. “It’s a sensory experience… taste, smell, texture… and if anyone gets outta hand, I’ll take care of it.”

“Copy that, Mistress Mara.”

Nico recognized a Republican state representative, hands bound to his chair, slurping up his bucatini, noodle-by-noodle. A local news anchor spoon-fed his blindfolded meteorologist gnocchi only after she begged for seconds. The president of the school board smacked the Hall of Fame wide receiver with a wooden ruler when he reached for the fresh-baked focaccia.

The kitchen hummed with the zingers, retorts and easy laughs of the days before the Instagold 7000. Beyond the first few head-snapping yelps and whip-cracking admonishments, the kitchen didn’t pay much attention to the customers. These SLABS really seemed to enjoy their meals — every sizzle, sniff and sip.

Then came the pièce de résistance: Cherries Jubilee — an exacting reenactment with a titan of industry playing the role of Humphrey Blbec, and Mistress Mara reprising hers by smashing Plein VanillaTM in his face.

“YOU EAT… WITH YOUR EYES… FIRST! How’s that taste, Mr. Bill-BETZ?”

“So good, so good, so good,” he murmured as he licked spilled cherries from her boots.

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

A month later during an afternoon crush of Spring Training tourists, a familiar face in a kitchen-staff T-shirt took a seat at Rafi’s bar.

“Sorry, ma’am. We don’t take gold anymore.”

“That’s good because I don’t spend it anymore.”

Madelaine Green slid two crisp Benjamins (#15,389,780.8-IG) across the counter.

As Rafi poured her vodka and rhubarb cocktail, topped with Champagne foam and freckles of cracked black pepper, Chef Nico pulled up a barstool.

“Thanks for coming back… Sorry about your boyfriend.”

“Not my boyfriend. He won a contest my agent set up: Have dinner with @ElleMange. That was the day I decided to divest.”

Emboldened by Nico’s stand, other celebrity chefs abandoned the market, turning Instacash into Instacrash. Well-heeled (and high-heeled, latex-clad) patrons whispered sweet relief that they no longer had to dine with those people in the new no-phone zones.

“So what were you thinking for dinner?”

“Pork shoulder with blood oranges?”

“It’s not Gold-Certified.”

“I eat with my mouth, not with my eyes.”

 

Tower Seven – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest, Round 3 (11/2017)

I made it to the third round / semifinals of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest where I got to write my first thriller ever. Again, this is a genre I never would have attempted otherwise, but since my choices were 1) Attempt to write a thriller or 2) Surrender and quit the contest, I present to you my first ever thriller (1,000 words, 48 hours to complete). PS – The entry deadline for the 2018 contest is July 12.

GENRE: Thriller
LOCATION: Radio Tower (Luckily, or unluckily, I worked at a radio station for 13 years)
RANDOM OBJECT: Ice Skates

TOWER SEVEN

The supercell drove golfball-sized hail into the windshields and rooftops of Idaho Falls. The first in a parade of storms tore a bright red gash of destruction across the radar.

The bleating phone shook Chris Balak from bed.

“First responder communications are down. Half the town’s without power,” Chief Kent barked. “How fast can you get to Tower Seven?”

“On my way.”

The truck stunk of fourteen-year-old Henry’s unwashed hockey sweater. Blue socks festered inside his skates. In the postgame torrent, they’d left his gear to ferment behind the driver’s seat.

Red lanterns blinked on the hilltop east of Rigby: Third from the left, Tower Seven was a six-hundred-foot mast, crowned with a nest of antennae and microwave drums.

Chris fastened the hardhat beneath her chin and threaded the harness between her legs and over her shoulders, cinching it snug across her chest.

“Want some help, Chrissie? I’ll get it all nice and tight…”

Puffed up from daily gym sessions and God-knows-what else, Blake Galloway adjusted himself within his own harness.

“I’m good. Thanks.”

She tethered her orange tool bag to her belt: Wedged inside their triangular prison, it’d swing like a thirty-pound kettlebell beneath her — hopefully enough to keep Blake at bay.

“Weather Service says we’ve got four hours.”

“Ladies first.”

They crawled into the tower, a silver blade stabbing the darkening sky. Chris clipped both sides of her harness onto the safety rail and steeled her nerves for the two-hour climb. Here, her five-foot-four frame was an asset. Against him, maybe not.

“Take your time, Chrissie. I’ll relax and enjoy the view.”

The steeple of steel folded her inside its metallic elbows, offering scant shelter from the stiffening wind and stinging mist as they climbed.

“So how does a girl get a job like this?”

“Passed the physical. Same as you.”

Her lungs and quadriceps burned to distance herself from him, as the mast swayed into its stiff tango with the leading squall.

“Only thing Eddie did wrong was get hurt. Why’d you take his job, Chrissie?”

“Eddie got hooked on Vicodin. He got himself fired.”

Same as her deadbeat ex.

Summers with the Snake River Hotshots earned Chris enough to stay home with Henry during school, until Aaron passed out at the kitchen table with a needle in his arm.

Tower jockeys made the same money with better benefits. Maybe it wasn’t as dangerous as a fireline, but at least she got to sleep in her own bed.

A hard jerk cut into her waist, snatching her breath, pulling her boot from the rung, and banging her shin into the ladder. The tool bag spun wildly around Blake’s leering grin.

“Watch yourself, girl — wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

She unclipped the carabiners from the ladder and shimmied outside the jungle gym. The spider web of county roads cut quilt-squares through the farmland quivering three hundred feet below.

“Sorry for slowing you down.”

As she clung to the girders, he slid his hand along the truss, brushing slowly across her body. Her sturdy Carhartt jacket could not protect her from him or the wind.

“C’mon, Chrissie. Gimme a chance.”

Thunder rumbled twelve Mississippis away, as the mist turned to intermittent rain: Blake moved swiftly without clipping in or looking back and disappeared through the grate seventy-five feet above.

Pulling herself atop the four-square-foot platform, Chris could see fifteen miles to the horizon where a charcoal cowlick of clouds massed. Lightning danced at the margins. The charged particles spewing from the antenna cluster buzzed in her mouth.

“Looks like we got a problem,” Blake said.

The pockmarked drum tilted off its mount. Working quickly and quietly, they wedged it back into alignment. Blake refastened the fittings, while Chris ran the diagnostics. As she bolted the hatch closed, he wrapped his paw around her slender forearm and tugged hard on her wrench.

Chris skittered backward, spinning the wrench down the cats-cradle of steel. The ping and clatter disappeared in the hissing wind. She never heard it hit bottom.

“Nothing to be scared of, Chrissie. I’ll go down first, so I can catch you when you fall.”

The calculus of descent banged through her head: If he hit the ground first, she couldn’t run. Damp and shivering, she swallowed the waves of nausea that followed the swell of wind.

“I’ll go ahead.”

She clipped onto the platform, her legs blindly searching for purchase below. He pressed his boot lightly on her fingertips.

“You can’t outrun me, girl.”

She ripped her hand from the glove, swinging down to the triangle truss. Biceps shaking, she spidered to the exoskeleton, exposed to the insistent wind and rain.

Blake slid down the ladder past her.

“Chrissie… Chrissie…”

Gusts body-checked her into the metal frame on the excruciating descent: Step. Step. Clip. Clip. Step. Step. Clip. Clip. The truck came into dizzying view beneath the gray curtain of rain.

Blake stopped and hung on the ladder like Fred Astaire: “Just singin’ in the rain.”

Clank!

She fell backward into nothingness: The safety cord tendril fluttered above her, the tool bag dragging her to the ground, the utility knife waving from his hand.

Jerk!

The second line caught, jack-knifing her rag-doll body and smashing her into the steel lattice. Two hundred feet in the air, he’d done her a favor, putting a good thirty feet between them. Ears ringing, hands raw and trembling, she unclipped her only tether and clawed back inside to slide down the rain-slicked ladder.

With fifteen feet left, she dove, tumbling into the cold mud, digging toward the truck.

He horse-collared her at the door, ripping her back. Chris clinched the steering wheel, reaching desperately for the screwdriver, the tire iron, the boot of the skate.

She swung backwards wildly: The runner sliced across his forehead.

“My name’s Chris, asshole!”

She spewed gravel as she sped away, leaving him rolling in the mud.

She filed a police report and took his job. Blake Galloway got himself fired.

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!